Tips for Memorizing Poetry?

Does anyone have special techniques for memorizing poetry? Do you assign lines to a specific number of locations? One word per location?

I don’t know much about poetry, so I spent a little time today reading about the basic structures. I’m hoping that basic knowledge of poetry structure will provide a few memorization hooks.

For example, recognizing the dactyl-trochee, dactyl-trochee pattern in “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking…” might help prevent errors during recall.

Here are my notes so far:

Elements of poetry


(Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot! yea ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl’s trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long;--
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
One syllable long, with one short at each side,
Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride;--
First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer
Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud high-bred Racer.




Yan 19 Sep 2021

I have never practised this event but I can see this as a modified version of the random word event.

One thing I'd have done is create fixed set of images for the different punctuations.

Then I would have created journeys with large loci points. I would have used each locus for a line. I would use the link method to create a story for each line and place the story at each locus.

One problem with the poem event is the fact that the number of lines vary, so you will need to have backup journeys.

In Joshua Foer's book, Gunther and another person gave some hints on the poem event. Gunther suggested reading the lines before memorizing it whereas the other person said to use emotions to memorize the poem.

You will need to experiment and see what works best for you.

Anyway are you participating in the US Memory Championship this year?


Dan 19 Sep 2021

I have a newly-found interest in memorizing poems, classic poems, after listening to former Vietnam POW and Navy aviator, Gerald Coffee. See his talk on YouTube. He spent 7 years as a POW.

My goal is memorize 2 poems a month, from Kipling to Frost.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

Let me know how it goes. I'd be interested to hear about any techniques you discover.

I should have some time off this summer where I'll be able to practice memorizing poetry...


Zuneybunny 19 Sep 2021

Does anyone know where I can find a detailed scoring guide for the poetry event? It doesn't seem to be on the official US Memory Championship guide.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

@Zuneybunny I'm not sure how the event is scored.

Does anyone out there know?


Rick 19 Sep 2021

I think you're going about this the wrong way. I mean, thinking (memorizing) of metrical feet before memorizing the poems seems to me unnecessary. I've got quite a few poems in my head and I couldn't tell you which lines were trochees or spondees.

Once you get the words down, then you can figure out the metrical patterns, and use them if they help your long-term memory. But thinking in terms of metrical feet BEFORE or even DURING the memorization period is like staring closely at the tree and not being able to see the forest.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

I don't think that one needs to memorize the meter in advance, but I've found it useful to be aware of it.

For example, the Shakespeare sonnet "That time of year thou mayst in me behold" -- knowing that the meter doesn't deviate from iambic pentameter means that you can error check the lines as you're memorizing it. Some poems deviate on just a couple of lines... so, for example, just remember that "My name is Ozymandias king of kings" is an exception to the meter of the rest of the poem.


Rick 19 Sep 2021

You can't error-check the lines you're memorizing by remembering that the particular line is iambic pentameter, because knowing the meter doesn't tell you what the words are.

You can memorize the line even if you don't know the meter. But knowing the meter doesn't allow you to memorize the words. You can't say, "I know this line is iambic pentameter, therefore the words are...." or "I know this line is half trochee and half spondee, therefore the words are...."

The words will give you the rhythm, but the rhythm won't give you the words.

I agree with you about knowing the meter. That knowledge can enhance the poem for you, get you closer to it, become more intimate with it.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

You can error check the line in some cases by knowing the meter, because a mnemonic image might have more than one interpretation.


"With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,"

The image could prompt the word "pit" instead of kernel. If unsure, just check the meter of the line, and you know it can't be "pit" because it breaks the meter.

(Just a quick, random example.)


Rick 19 Sep 2021

The image won't prompt the word "pit" instead of "kernel" because your image will be about a pit, not a kernel. That's one of the main points of the various systems. You make strong visual images in such a way as to allow no misinterpretation, no confusion with "like" things.

You could use a colonel in the army (someone from the movies or TV) to get "kernel" and a hole in the ground for "pit" (or an image of Brad Pitt), and therefore never be confused. Which means that meter wouldn't be an issue).

Or you could use the literal picture of both but make them huge or make them many or substitute them for something.

In other words, you wouldn't see this tiny thing and ask yourself, "Is this a kernel or a pit?" The various systems will encourage you to change the image into something memorable, and if it's memorable, you won't be confused. The point is to make an image that WON'T have more than one interpretation.

The systems are designed to do away with confusion.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

We don't have to argue about it. I'm just saying how I approach it. :)

There have been a few times during recall were I've been able to error check with the meter. Also, rhythm is memorable, and exaggerating the meter creates rhythm.

I don't confuse "kernel" because I use a chocolate-covered penguin, which is unambiguous to me--it was just an example. Images aren't always so clear-cut, and the more paths one has to the information, the better the chance of recalling it if one of the paths fails.


Rick 19 Sep 2021

I wasn't trying to sound argumentative. I was simply trying to clarify my position.

When you say "images aren't always so clear-cut", I think you probably haven't yet grasped the essence of mnemonics, which is to create clear-cut, vivid, one-of-a-kind mental images, which will always provide the words/phrases you're trying to recall. If the image isn't clear-cut, then you must think of one that is. After all, you're in control of the images, you create them, you have the ability (and the obligation) to make them clear-cut using whichever method that works.

I've created images which, on recall, turned out to be weak and vague. This is a tip-off that raises a red flag. So I simply thought and thought until I came up with a strong image that couldn't be confused with anything else, an image that was so vivid and unique that it basically handed me the word or phrase on a silver platter.

A chocolate-covered penguin for the word "kernel" is a perfect mnemonic. It's vivid, strong, and you'll never confuse it with any other word.

Keep up the good work.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

I grasp the essence of mnemonics. :)

If mnemonics were always clear cut and foolproof, then no one who uses them would ever forget anything. Even the best mnemonists sometimes fail to memorize a complete sequence of information, because one of the images wasn't strong enough.

There are probably close to 200,000 words in the English language alone. Shakespeare used tens of thousands. It is impossible to have a set mnemonic image for every singe word, so one often has to improvise.

Not every improvised image is going to work. If the link isn't strong enough (and not all of them are, or you wouldn't ever forget anything), it's good to have a second or third connection. Mnemonics aren't only about images.

I'm not saying to waste time with quickly checking the meter of a poem, or exaggerating the meter as part of the memorization. If you don't find it helpful, don't do it. I find it useful. I also have hand motions in some cases, but I won't get into that here. :)

(Chocolate-covered penguin is actually an image for "sweet kernel". "Penguin" is the Linux kernel. While "Pit" in Invictus is two giant, black peach pits on each end of an exotic dancer's pole. I have distinct images in those cases--it was just a random example.)


Rick 19 Sep 2021

Actually, mnemonics is clear cut and foolproof. If the proper conditions prevail, mistakes don’t happen. If a memory champion wasn’t able to recall information because the image wasn’t strong enough, surely this means that his or her mind didn’t do the proper work and create a strong-enough image.

The lapse of memory is a reflection on the mind that created the images, not on mnemonics itself. One shouldn't blame “mnemonics” for being at fault, when it’s really a human failing, not a process failing. As long as the images are strong enough (along with periodic reinforcement), all information is accessible. Therefore, foolproof. It's the human mind that's fallible. But so long as the mind adheres to the proper methods, there's no lapse in memory.

I’ve never said (or hinted or suggested) that each word in the language should have its own image (though this is, theoretically, possible). I’ve never seen the need for that “as a regular practice”, though I’ve sometimes given each word a separate image if I felt that was the best way to learn a line or passage. This is true improvisation = see what works at that particular moment.

I agree with you that not every improvised (or spontaneous) image will be the proper one. If it’s weak, you’ll know soon enough. Which, as I said, is the fault of the mind for not coming up with something strong. If you make a strong image, you’ll never need a second or third connection.

By the way, I use “image” in the literary sense, which can be visual, aural, smell, or touch.

Hand motions? Whatever works is above criticism. There is no right or wrong. There is only what works and what doesn’t.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

The human mind is isn't perfect, and can't consistently create perfect mnemonic images. Even the best mnemonists can't create perfect images after a certain point.

A mnemonic is improved when there are multiple connections from the storage in the brain to the thing to be remembered.

Rhyme, meter, and rhythm are mnemonic devices. They aren't the most effective methods (compared with the method of loci), but they are another tool. I experience practical benefit from it.

It might be a good discussion topic for the forum...


Rick 19 Sep 2021

I totally agree with you that the more sensory information you include can only help you. There's no downside to it.

But when you say, "Even the best mnemonists can’t create perfect images after a certain point", well, that I don't get. I mean, how do you know? There's never been any "test" to determine if there's a "certain point" or even if it exists. You simply assume that it exists.

In my opinion, as long as the human mind stays active, there is no limit to creating perfect images, since there's no lack of source material: movies, TV, books, photographs, people around you, people in your personal life. It just goes on and on and on.

Several years ago, I wrote out a list of 1,000 famous/public males (actors, singers/musicians, sports and politics) and 1,000 females (actors, singers/musicians, sports and politics) that I consult whenever I needed a male or female image. So many of these images come from seeing a LOT of movies and TV shows over the years.

I also drew up parallel lists of non-famous people (male and female) in my life, past and present: family members, teachers, fellow students, friends (and their parents, cousins, grandparents), office co-workers.

Needless to say, there are many more than 1,000 now on all the lists.

I made the lists long ago so that I'd have something I could look at right away, rather than sit and try to think of someone new. I saw no reason to memorize the people, since I'm rarely someplace where I don't have access to the lists. (If I don't have it in front of me when I'd like to use a person, I simply improvise and use someone who comes to mind spontaneously.)

I suppose one day I'll arrange them all in some kind of memory palace, a special room or rooms (divided by sex and profession), so that I can simply walk into the area and call someone forward.

And from time to time I add another person. It keeps growing and growing.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

There’s never been any “test” to determine if there’s a “certain point” or even if it exists.

Maybe we are talking about different things. I mean that, in practice, all mnemonists reach points when they can't go further in the time frame of an event without making mistakes. When I was an arbiter at one of the competitions, I graded the scores of some of the top competitors and saw them make plenty of mistakes before finishing all the rows.

I'm only referring to the practical limit. I just mean that using multiple tools reinforces images and makes them stronger. Everyone has their own methods.

Good idea with the library of people. I never watched many movies or much TV and don't have that many people in my main system. I thought about watching more movies but haven't gotten around to it yet. :)


Jackson 19 Sep 2021

Personally, I've just found pure spaced repetition to be the fastest way. I made a website to quiz me (and maybe help others) when learning Shakespeare sonnets:

I've definitely noticed I get much better at it with practice.

I suppose this drilling/rote-learning approach could be combined with the ideas above.

More Thoughts About Memorizing Poetry — 19 Sep 2021

[...] mentioned a good tip about emotions. On my first run through of the poem, I accidentally [...]

To leave a comment, visit the Art of Memory Forum and create a new topic.