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Memorizing Poetry

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I read somewhere recently that the skill and practice of memorizing poetry is a dying art and that people today have all but lost the practice, so I decided that I would start to try and memorize poetry. My youngest decided to join in, and I have to say he is far more skilled than me!


Our first poem now nailed -


Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost


Nature's first green is gold

Her hardest hue to hold

Her early leaf's a flower

But only so an hour

Then leaf subsides to leaf

So Eden sank to grief

So dawn goes down to day

Nothing gold can stay.

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Lovely poem Hazel, but not all that easy. Well done you and youngest!

Maybe memorising poetry is not so popular today because so much poetry is free verse. And that's probably not quite so easy. I have to admit that my memorising skills have diminished over the years. At a push I can come up with this from Winnie the Pooh:

I'm not afraid I said to Pooh

And I held his hand and I shouted


Silly old dragons."

And off they flew.

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That's a lovely poem Ting!


Our next one is going to be another Frost - Fire and Ice. I'll post it when we've memorised it. Then maybe something by Emily Dickinson.

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I'm not very good at memorizing poetry, but I have memorized the poem "Binker" as you might imagine.  I tried to say it to him when I was visiting him at his sickest and got all choked up and made the vet's assistant cry, too:


Binker-what I call him-is a secret of my own,
And Binker is the reason why I never feel alone.
Playing in the nursery, sitting on the stair,
Whatever I am busy at, Binker will be there.


Oh, Daddy is clever, he’s a clever sort of man,
And Mummy is the best since the world began,
And Nanny is Nanny, and I call her Nan-

But they can’t See Binker.


Binker’s always talking, ‘cos I’m teaching him to speak
He sometimes likes to do it in a funny sort of squeak,
And he sometimes likes to do it in a hoodling sort of roar…
And I have to do it for him Cos his throat is rather sore.


Oh, Daddy is clever, he’s a clever sort of man,
And Mummy knows all that anybody can,
And Nanny is Nanny, and I call her Nan-

But they don’t Know Binker.


Binker’s brave as lions when we’re running in the park;
Binker’s brave as tigers when we’re lying in the dark;
Binker’s brave as elephants. He never, never cries…
Except (like other people) when the soap gets in his eyes.


Oh, Daddy is Daddy, he’s a Daddy sort of man,
And Mummy is as Mummy as anybody can,
And Nanny is Nanny,and I call her Nan…

But they’re not Like Binker.


Binker isn’t greedy, but he does like things to eat,
So I have to say to people when they’re giving me a sweet,
“Oh, Binker wants a chocolate, so could you give me two?”
And then I eat it for him, Cos his teeth are rather new.


Well, I’m very fond of Daddy, but he hasn’t time to play,
And I’m very fond of Mummy, but she sometimes goes away,
And I’m often cross with Nanny when she wants to brush my hair…

But Binker’s always Binker, and is certain to be there.


My son had to memorize a lot of poetry in elementary school.   He started with a poem from "A Child's Garden of Verses" by Robert Louis Stevenson, but his favorite was this one:



I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.' 

Percy Bysshe Shelley
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I am happy to admit that although I am not a great poetry reader a few poems had stuck in my head over the years, a few of my favorites are by Ogden Nash, here are a few that I can remember off the top my head,







The Abominable Snowman


I've never seen an abominable


I'm hoping not to see one,

I'm also hoping, if I do,

That it will be a wee one.


The Cow


The cow is of the bovine ilk;

One end is moo, the other, milk.


The Fly


God in his wisdom made the fly

And then forgot to tell us why.

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I have a book (oddly!) that states that poetry should be read every day, memorised and said out loud.  I do have one poem that I can just about say out loud from memory:



Lord Ullin's Daughter by Thomas Campbell
A chieftain, to the Highlands bound,
Cries, ``Boatman, do not tarry!
And I'll give thee a silver pound
To row us o'er the ferry!''--

``Now, who be ye, would cross Lochgyle,
This dark and stormy weather?''
``O, I'm the chief of Ulva's isle,
And this, Lord Ullin's daughter.--

``And fast before her father's men
Three days we've fled together,
For should he find us in the glen,
My blood would stain the heather.

``His horsemen hard behind us ride;
Should they our steps discover,
Then who will cheer my bonny bride
When they have slain her lover?''--

Out spoke the hardy Highland wight,--
``I'll go, my chief--I'm ready:--
T'is not for your silver bright;
But for your winsome lady:

``And by my word! the bonny bird
In danger shall not tarry;
So, though the waves are raging white,
I'll row you o'er the ferry.''--

At this the storm grew loud apace,
The water-wraith was shrieking;
And in the scowl of heaven each face
Grew dark as they were speaking.

But still as wilder blew the wind,
And as the storm grew drearer,
Adown the glen rode armèd men,
Their trampling sounded nearer.--

``O haste thee, haste!'' the lady cries,
``Though tempests round us gather;
I'll meet the raging of the skies,
But not an angry father.''--

The boat has left a stormy land,
A stormy sea before her,--
When, O! too strong for human hand,
The tempest gather'd o'er her.

And still they row'd amidst the roar
Of waters fast prevailing:
Lord Ullin reach'd that fatal shore,--
His wrath was changed to wailing.

For, sore dismay'd through storm and shade,
His child he did discover:--
One lovely hand she stretch'd for aid,
And one was round her lover.

``Come back! come back!'' he cried in grief
``Across this stormy water:
And I'll forgive your Highland chief,
My daughter!--O my daughter!''

'Twas vain: the loud waves lash'd the shore,
Return or aid preventing:
The waters wild went o'er his child,
And he was left lamenting.
First met this at school around the age of fourteen and thought that it was the most beautiful and tragic thing that I'd ever heard of - other classes were doing Romeo and Juliet and begged to differ.  We later got McBeth then Hamlet and Hamlet became the most tragic thing ever.
I can also recite snatches of Tam O'Shanter (you'll be glad to know it's only snatches, because it's a long one) and snatches of Hiawatha, which is also long.  I grew up listening to my grandmother and mother reciting poetry, and whatever else they were moved to recite, and truly thought that everybody did that.
Incitdentally it was a Robert Frost poem that was my mother's favourite: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.  She found the last two lines very mysterious :
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.
It is indeed a lovely poem.
Edited by lunababymoonchild
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This is a lovely way to train a memory and it is a shame that it seldom happens even a little in school now . It also explains why many of the books written up to early 20th century are littered with classical or literary allusions, which annoys modern readers, but is because those fortunate enough to be educated then were steeped in Greek, Latin and English literature from an early age and could quote it so easily.


While I didn't appreciate it at the time even in the forties at school we were expected to memorise an enormous amount - poetry, Shakespearean speeches and sonnets, chapters of the Bible and great chunks of Latin from Virgil.  Not by any means advocating that, and I certainly can't remember much of it now, but when a few lines of poetry or Shakespeare come up as a quote  it usually flies into context and I can remember  more.  Not the Latin, sadly, which is a shame as I would like to re-read The Aeneid in the original but can't do that without a translation handy. I realize this is no longer practical in today's world where youngsters need such different skills but a little wouldn't hurt and I am glad you are teaching your boys, Hazel.


A few stick with me, here is my absolute favourite  




If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling
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I find it hard to memorize anything these days, but can recall snippets of many poems learned when younger, and I can often recall the words of poems just ahead of hearing them when they are being read at my poetry group.

The first poems that I learned as a small child still come easily to mind.


My mother told me that I used to recite the following rhyme when I was 18minths old (I suspect it was a song, but she didn't say I sang it)


Get upon a puff-puff early in the morning

See them on the platform all in a row

Man upon the engine blows his little whistle

Woo! Woo!

Off we go!



My "party piece" for many years was (and still is if I'm put on the spot)


A man of words and not of deeds

Is like a garden full of weeds,

And when the weeds begin to snow

It's like a garden full of snow

And when the snow begins to fall

it's like a bird upon the wall,

And when the bird away does fly

It's like an eagle in the sky,

And when the sky begins to crack

It's like a stick across your back,

And when your back begins to smart

It's like a penknife in your heart,

And when your heart begins to bleed

You're dead, and dead

And dead indeed!



There are others, learned as an adult, that I used to be able to recite, but I wouldn't rely upon my memory to get me through them in public these days, such as:


A Visit From St Nicholas - by Clement Clarke Moore

Timothy Winters - by  Charles Causely

The Lion & Albert - by Marriott Edgar

Lies - by Yevgeny Yevtushenko


But I guess all it really needs is regular practice to dredge them back up into a more accessible part of my diminishing memory bank.

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I think I read somewhere that Churchill would learn a poem every day while shaving!


Years ago, I had a long journey to work and I used to spend the time learning poems out of an anthology by heart. I think this is the rough list:


Shakespeare - Shall I compare; When in disgrace...

Blake - The Tyger

Wordsworth - The Daffodils

Coleridge - Kubla Khan; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (gave up after the first few verses!)

Tennyson - Be near me; Break break break; Lady of Shallott

Lear - The Owl and the Pussycat

Wilfred Owen - Dulce et Decorum; Futility; Anthem for Doomed Youth

Yeats - An Irish Airman forsees his death

Brooke - The Soldier; The Old Vicarage Grantchester


I regarded Grantchester (which took me several weeks!) as a huge achievement owing to its length. Pity that I now regard it as not much better than doggerel...


But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There's peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep...

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Edited by woofwoof
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I have always liked the Owl and the Pussycat but have never been able to remember it fully, I think because my memory just refuses to remember the words in the right order! :)

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Aha! Another that i can claim for my repertoire - apart from a little confusion between 'honey' and "money.

Logic helped sort that out - a fiver wrapped around sticky honey isn't very practical. :wonder:

Having your money warped up in money is odd anyway so it might as well be honey! LOL

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My daughter was seven years old when she came home from school one Wednesday and complained that she would have to memorise the entire "Easter Walk" till Friday. What? That teacher must have been mad!

Luckily, we accidentally met her class teacher that afternoon and took our chance to ask her about this excessive homework. "Oh, no, no!" she laughed. "I said, they should learn the first eight lines or so. No one can learn the entire poem in such a short time!"


Our daughter heard that. And it made her utterly determined to demonstrate that she could! With my assistance, she worked all Wednesday and Thursday afternoon on the text. And to her teacher's surprise and marvel, she produced it in school on Friday, in full and flawlessly.


(She regrets a lot that she has forgotten most of the poem since.)

Edited by Romanike
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I was lucky enough to go to a school which made us memorise poetry.  I found it easy and spent my schooldays learning large chunks.  In the days before smartphones (or even car radios) I could entertain myself very happily running over poems in my head.  (Reading made me carsick.)  The longest poem I learnt was 'The Hunting of the Snark', and I can still remember most of it.

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