Three Criteria for the Memorization of a Poem

Space Object Box: "Little Bear, etc."
Joseph Cornell
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

"The cathedrals of today, wherever they are, are very unimposing, very unnoticeable. The boxes, the collages, the home movies of Joseph Cornell are the invisible cathedrals of our age. That is, they are almost invisible, as are all the best things that man can still find today: They are almost invisible, unless you look for them." 
- Jonas Mekas

It is important to ask yourself why you want to memorize a poem. To what end? 

I mean, what good does it do to know a poem by heart? To be able to close your eyes and conjure the poem back into the world whenever you wish?

I imagine those who might find the occasion to stand up in front of others and recite poetry. 

And I recommend this for everyone to try at least once. When I was first starting to memorize, I was fortunate enough to have been involved with a local poetry night. Every Monday, I stood up in front of several dozen people and recited a poem - almost always from memory. It is an entirely different animal to “speak a poem” from memory in the privacy of your own car or while walking dully along to “performing a poem” from memory before a gathering of expectant faces ready to hang upon your every stutter and stammer and misspoken word. 

There is a primal quality to performance where a deeper portion of the self is called upon to capture the imagination and attention of the group to resonate as an actor, a storyteller, a singer, a preacher, poet, rhapsode, dancer, witch-doctor, seer and shaman. It is an ancient drama. To stand in the circle outside of the fire and become possessed. It has been said that we call down the God not to ride them but to have the God ride us. 

Beyond the desire or need to perform a poem, what further rationale is there for memorizing a poem?

Before the mass production of books, McLuhan’s extensions of memory, the memorization of poems, drama, prose was a natural necessary and unquestioned aspect of any rudimentary education, essential in Classical Culture. In the Renaissance, it found new life in alchemical and esoteric pursuits. Matthew Arnold’s ideas of culture as the core European Humanism relied upon the “non-mechanical” memorization of great literature. Of course, memorization has always been crucial to the great religious traditions (pre-literate and post): Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.. 

But what now? After the storm, stress and technological revolutions of the 20th century, why memorize a poem? 

“At hand and by heart” now is the smart phone with all of the world’s knowledge. What need is there to memorize? 

Before everything, you must ask yourself why. 

Even though I flirted with the practice of memory all of my life, it wasn’t until certain family difficulties that I became serious about it. Initially, and still always as a grim and goading impetus, it was to set up structures within my mind that would serve as alarms to mental degeneration. 

However, it has become much more than that. Few activities in my life have been as transformative and catalyzing as the active practice of memory. I cannot recommend it more highly.

Whatever you determine you reasons to be, if you are serious, I here offer a few suggestions.

Camillo's Memory Theater 

"By the ancients thus it was custom that those same philosophers who taught and showed to dear disciples profound doctrines, having clearly declared them, would cover them with fables, so that the covers they made would keep the doctrines hidden: so that they would not be profaned."
- Giulio Camillo

What you want to look for in a poem are, at least, three essential criteria - each of them threaded through with the other:

1. A poem that you love. 

It MUST be a poem that you love, that you are passionate about. You have to lust after the poem.  

Anything that you want to memorize is a something that you burn to take into your most interior self, to weave it into the fabric of our being. 

To memorize something, to say it over and over, to recreate it within you, is to fall "under the spell" of the thing, it is to make it a part of the most internal, sacred and private language that you use to speak to yourself only. It will become part of the ur-language that constructs the process of your thinking. 

When you are searching for a text to memorize, look for that which you adore, that which excites you like nothing else, the want for another being's words inside your mind to transform your inner world. 

The beautiful quality about building your interior library is that there is such a wealth of poems, prayers, prose, speeches, laments, passages to choose from. 

Often I have a sense of being in Aladdin's Cave - such a plentitude of riches. 

Mostly, it is an issue of the moment. A phrase, a passage, speaks to me, to deeper part of me, and I want it. I desire it. The sexual implications are apt. There is a desire to merge one's self with the innermost aspects of being / thoughts of another, to work towards an ecstasy of understanding, Keat’s “negative capacity,” where the poem seems to live, gain new life, within you. The Holy Fire. Your mind bursts into flame. This is what you are looking for when you are looking for a poem to memorize. 

The Mnemosyne Atlas - Aby Warburg

[The Mnemosyne Atlas] is the strangest of art-historical artefacts: the kaleidoscopic image of the scholar’s enigmatic reordering of a lifetime’s meditation on the image. The Atlas, wrote Warburg, was ‘a ghost story for adults’: it invents a kind of phantomic science of the image, a ghost dance in which the most resonant gestures and expressions its creator had discovered in the course of his career return with a spooky insistence, suddenly cast into wholly new relationships.

2. A poem that bears repeated recitation. 

There are many that meet the first requirement simply out of a basic love for language, but fail to meet the second. 

You know that you will be saying, thinking, every word of the poem thousands and thousands of times. The poem will become a mantra, a prayer, and it’s language, every word, will be chewed over in your saying until it has no essence left and is just a flavorless cud ruminating in your mouth. It becomes a tired and a worn-out thing. 

But then, alchemical change occurs. You re-member, re-assemble, re-create the poem word by word: every article, noun, verb, adjective and adverb is no longer called into question. You know it by heart. 

And the meaning of it, the why of it, is born again with you as you speak the poem new from the heart of memory. It is a first rising sun to you, dawning for the first time, as you say it. It is, without exaggeration, a mystical experience. The poem, once again, quietly surpasses you.

To be able to place your mind, just for the 14 lines of a sonnet, into the starlike cauldron of Shakespeare, to have those words arise from the depths of your own being, as if they are your own, is the very definition of ecstasy. It is one of the most redemptive exercises for the sadness of this world that I know. 

On the other hand, as much as I enjoy (love seems odd here) much of, say, Sylvia Plath's poetry, I have no desire to memorize it (Poor Sylvia). I don't want to recite those words over and over again. The same could be said for Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams. My respect for their poetry is undiminished. 

However, I could, and most likely will, memorize Shakespeare and Rilke until my dying day. Also, Yeats, Hopkins, Dickinson, Blake and Dylan Thomas. These are strange and idiosyncratic symptoms of my own history. 

You will find your own stars that you prefer to orbit as you add more poems to your interior library.

The Memory Machine is Libeskind's interpretation of Giulio Camillo's "Memory Theatre," a 16th-century structure where, upon entering, a person's mind would be filled and inscribed with a knowledge of the universe. Some historians have argued that Camillo's idea influenced the construction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which may or may not have been why Libeskind based his design on a period stage set apparatus. 
- Do Daniel Libeskind's Awesome Machines Mean I Have To Stop Hating His Work?

3. A poem must continually unfold its meaning. 

I consider this the quality that makes one poem great and another poem just remarkable. 

One of the qualities of beauty is strangeness and depth. With a good poem, you can "see the bottom." With a great poem, it is like looking into the ocean.

Shakespeare is obviously a deep and ever revealing ocean. He just unfolds over and over. It is like memorizing a fractal. The sonnets come immediately to mind. Soliloquies of Hamlet, Richard III, Lear and Prospero. Hopkins even through the delightful hedges of his rhyming wordplay always unfolds newly. Blake and Dickinson take the breath away with the depth of their Zen simplicity. Keats. Lorca. Yeats. Auden.

As a result of the practice of memory, I  believe it is often intially difficult to judge the depth of the poem from the "outside," that is, from an unmemorized position. 

There have been occasions where I have spent fair time committing a poem to memory then sensing, suddenly and not without a measure of sadness, it was “done.” 

I could “see around it” and all the way down the bottom of it. What was mysterious and attractive before is suddenly revealed as a thing somewhat banal and deceptively simple. Usually, for me, it is a clever piece or wit, shimmering with a gnomic simplicity, often times a joke in disguise. 

I am hesitant to cite example for fear of showing my hand, my guilty pleasures in the well-turned phrase, but Yeat’s Drinking Song, Crane’s In the Desert, much of Frost, bits and pieces of Auden. I made the mistake a lot at first, being greedy in Aladdin’s Cave, but have found over time I have become more discriminating in this regard. 

On the other hand, as I am working on this at the moment, Hopkins' sonnet, Carrion Comfort, with its halting negating language, words doubled, flipped and turned inside out until they form into a deeply meditative prayer of endurance, is a wonderful poem to memorize. 

I would go so far as to say, that it is only through memorizing this poem - being able to recite it to oneself and listen to the words recreated within you - that the inner meanings of the poem are revealed.

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.