Questions About Memorizing Poetry: Keats' "To Autumn"

Today, I’ve been walking around Naxos Town, placing mnemonic images for Keats’ To Autumn around the Portara. I’m wondering if my method is as efficient as it could be.

Portara at Naxos

Here is a sample line from the poem that was giving me trouble:

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, Here are my images:

  1. With = makes the next image fatter (width)
  2. a = an ox
  3. sweet kernel = chocolate-covered penguin (Linux kernel)
  4. to = tuna – same image as for #12, “TU”
  5. set = tray of Okinawan food (“setto” = 071)
  6. budding = Buddy Guy
  7. more = morel mushroom

That is a lot of images for one locus, but for some lines, like this one, I’m finding that I need an image for every word. Other lines just need a couple of keywords.

Is anyone else finding that some poems and lines require a cumbersome number of images? Do you string them together into a story?



CV Stuart

CV Stuart 19 Sep 2021

Yes, I find that there are some lines where I need to create an image for every word, but there are some lines that I never have trouble with. I find that what works for me is creating a storyline that connects the images, even when it's for every word.

Hey Josh, how about creating a Challenge for Keats' "To Autumn"? I'm going to start on it today. I wish I had as interesting loci as you do! Sounds like a great trip in Europe.



Rick 19 Sep 2021

Why do you feel that lots of images are cumbersome? I've never understood this. If you're using the techniques properly, and if they do, in fact, actually help you to memorize the line correctly, then where's the problem?

If you set yourself the goal of learning 10,000 images for 10,000 numbers, then you'd better get used to having lots of images in your head.

If you set yourself the goal of learning lots of poetry, then you'd better get used to having lots of images in your head.

Instead of feeling that the number of images is cumbersome, why not simply ask yourself if it's working? Dominic O'Brien, Andi Bell, and all the other memory champs have thousands of images in their heads. If they had considered so much to be cumbersome, I doubt they'd have reached the high level they're at.

Consider this = the more images you create (for whatever reason), will help you create images in the future, when you're memorizing other things. In other words, creating them makes your brain work better.

Don't see it as a negative. Realize it's a positive.

Bill Powell

Bill Powell 19 Sep 2021

Hi Josh! I just found your site. It's great to read the nitty-gritty details of someone else's adventures in memorization.

I've just written a longish blog about how I memorized a comic "epic" (14,500 words) called the Glugs of Gosh. Basically, after a lot of trial and error, I decided that visual mnemonics were actually working against me! The rhythm and rhyme of the poem, as well as the continuous meaning, were the built-in oral mnemonics. By pausing to make visual mnemonics, I was shattering the chunks that my brain was trying to make.

The world of oral tradition is fascinating: Muslims who know the entire Qu'ran, Hebrew children who can recite the entire Pentateuch, African griots who can recite entire genealogies. As far as I know, most of them don't use loci.

That being said, I did find some verbal mnemonics useful, for tough spots. But they were more of a Band-Aid, not the backbone of the technique.

The other key was spaced repetition, which you need regardless of your memory technique. It's curious that spaced repetition gets so little mention in the mainstream memory literature, especially when there's free software like Anki that makes it so easy to use.

Anyhow, here's the whole blog:

Bill Powell

Bill Powell 19 Sep 2021

Oops, one edit above: I found some VISUAL mnemonics useful, especially for tough spots. :)


Josh 19 Sep 2021

Thanks for posting the link. Nice Drupal site... :)

Bill Powell

Bill Powell 19 Sep 2021

Thanks, Josh! Yeah, Drupal is fun. But Wordpress can be the best tool for the job. :)

Keep us posted on your poem memorizing. It took me a lot of false starts, but eventually I got it to work, and it's worth it.

Kris S

Kris S 19 Sep 2021

I'll second Rick's in as much as you shouldn't be afraid of a multitude of images. NEVER THE LESS, timing is everything. Numbers work mnemonically only when translated into imagery, but poetry is already imagery! Don't turn beautifully organized words into something less. For me poetry, especially classic lyrics, is about pace, beat and rhythm. Use this. For instance; if you regularly listen to music, you'll probably know several lyrics or at least parts. You don't do this by actively memorizing them using a memory system, but by listening and following the system already in the music. Keats has plenty of that music hidden in between his lines. Find it, and use it.

Here's how I would go about memorizing a poem that's entirely new to me.

  1. Fully understand WHY I want to know this poem by heart. Whether for school, recreational, meditating, showing off, acting or, of course, impressing a girl (a feat I have actually accomplished, which is far more satisfying than using the game strategy I'm sure).

  2. Get a good audio reading of the poem. Listen to it a couple of times.

  3. Read the poem thoroughly; look up word, the author, the history.

  4. Listen to the poem again.

  5. make a list of major themes or difficult words, and memorize using whichever system you're most comfortable with.

  6. repeat the poem as best you can, correct yourself, try again. Failed? Try again.

I have memorized 100s of poems (Byron, Hausmann, Milton, Edvard Lear, Poe etc.). Some of them are like pop songs; I can't get them out of my head. Others require more discipline.

However, after this elaborate litany of very biased guidance, I'll urge anyone memorizing poetry to take this word of advise to heart: Do it for your own sake.

And fear not: Oft a little morning rain foretells a pleasant day, Kris

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