How to Memorize a Poem

There is an event at the USA Memory Championship to see who can memorize the most words from a poem in 15 minutes. Michael Glantz, a high school student, currently holds this record by memorizing 237 consecutive words (including punctuation) in only 15 minutes. That is a truly phenominal score!

My strategy for memorizing a poem has been to use a 2500-year-old method, known as “loci” to tackle this task. It is the core memory training system I use to teach how to memorize. Michael Glantz  and some other people who score high on memorizing a poem, use a slightly different strategy, and I may soon be adopting it as well.

I approached the poetry contest section like I do any other memory project – like remembering numbers or cards. I number 50 (or more pieces of furniture or stops along a path) and then I memorize these stops, which I refer to as files.

Here is a video I created on how to memorize a poem:

In approaching the poem to memorize I have turned key words into images. Here are some examples:

And = ants

The = knees

A = apple

Be = bee

Year = calendar

That = hat

His = hiss

With = wick

What = water

Who = owl

When = hen

I then read the poem, and then take the words from it and place them on pieces of furniture in my home. Being somewhat methodical, I place each line of the poem in a different room.

How does this contrast with what some really high scorers are doing in this event?

When they read the poem through once they try to get a feel for what the author is trying to say – his style, rhythm and punctuation. In addition, they memorize more by the message of the poem than the indifferent approach I have been taking — like memorizing a string of numbers. Next, I observed that they are writing as they memorize. They will memorize 3 or 4 lines, writing them out over and over. This inbeds the lines into their memory. I have never written the words out before, they have always stayed in my mind until the recall stage of the event, but I like this idea and am going to start using it as well.

So how will my new strategy for memorizing a poem change? I still will substitute pictures for words. That is critical because in learning how to remember anything, including a poem, you have to turn it into a picture. The difference will be that I will read the poem more to get a feel for the work itself, and not just turn it into a string of words to memorize. I also plan on writing down the words of the poem during the memorization stage to cement the flow of the words into my mind.

I have to admit, I was never a big fan of poetry, but I am really learning a new appreciation for this creative way of telling a story. I am going to try to enjoy the poem as much as I enjoy memorizing it. It is just as important to understand what you are trying to memorize as it is to remember, and if you want to learn to improve your memory learn to appreciate what you want to remember — especially poetry!

It just goes to show that, although most memory experts use the same basis — loci, there are variations, and even this old dog can learn new tricks!

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