3 Strange & Wondrous Ways You Can Learn Poetry By Heart & Memorize Any Passage of Literature

  • Poems, unique among all literature, were for many centuries specifically meant to be learned by heart. They were meant to be memorized and then recited aloud. This is called the oral tradition of poetry — which in essence means holding literature in the mind and heart, and then reciting it. Thus we find in the oral tradition of poetry both an individual and also a shared aspect.

    But why in this high-speed day and age — this Instagram age — why should anyone bother memorizing poetry or other passages of literature? Of what value is it?

    I have an emphatic answer to that question:

    When you memorize and learn by heart, you capture the quiddity of the poem or passage, and in so doing (even if you forget parts of it later) you hold it always within you.

    This is no small thing. In fact, in a very real sense it captures the essence of what it means to reason and be human: because when you know a poem by heart, you own that poem. Its language becomes a part of you. It becomes a part of your mind, which is the heart and basis of you and your personality.

    It’s therefore no exaggeration to say that the words you’ve learned by heart — like all things you learn and come to grasp and understand — join the ceaseless flow of your thoughts, which are you. They contribute to the shaping of your very person. This is so because humans live by means of thought, and thought consists of words.

    Without language, there can be no thinking.

    When you know a poem or passage by heart, you by necessity become enmeshed with that poem or passage. It becomes, I say again, a part of you.

    You’re forever afterward able to contemplate the poem more deeply, grasp the poem more profoundly, possess the words more fully. But even more fundamental than that: the language now lives within you, and it runs like a river through the channels of your mind. And it always will — no matter if you forget certain words or passages at a later time.

    When, therefore, you truly memorize, learn, and retain something, even if you do forget parts of it later, you will forever after possess the thing in a way you never did before and a way that will forever have enriched you and grown your mind. You possess it inside you — and even more than that: you possess it in a manner which is totally original and uniquely you because it’s become integrated with your own way of thinking, and no two people think exactly alike or have the same experiences or context of knowledge. The words you’ve learned by heart are thus blended in with your own body-of-context — the way you and you alone experience and look upon the world and the universe — and that outlook is exclusively yours and always will be, and it will never be anybody else’s.

    “The world is for each peculiar and private to each individual soul,” wrote T.S. Eliot, and I think this is a true and profound observation.

    Memorizing and learning literature — any literature — by heart enriches and expands the scope of our thinking (i.e. our consciousness). In this sense, the fundamental sense, it expands the scope of our entire learning process and our minds.

    It also, as a corollary, strengthens the methods by which we learn.

    The human consciousness, arguably the most complex thing in the known universe, operates by means of reason and apprehension — which is to say, words and language.

    A person who can recite words which, through a self-guided act of will emerging from within her, possesses those words in a deeper way. This person also therefore has greater command of her thoughts, and in this way, too, she is more fully self-directed.

    The good of learning poetry by heart is for these very reasons immeasurable.

    My desire in this article is to fully persuade you of this immeasurable goodness and human enrichment.

    In learning anything by heart, I urge you to systematically strive to retain instead of repeat. This may sound like lexical hairsplitting, but I assure you it is not.

    Memory is an act of processing and integrating — specifically, processing and integrating new data into your existing body of knowledge. This existing body of knowledge is your context.

    Retaining means that you’re actively integrating, which is also known as synthesizing. It means that you’re gaining knowledge.

    All knowledge is a process of context expansion.

    Repeating means that you’re merely parroting. It means that you’re going through the motions mechanically, without actual learning. Repeating can be helpful at first — preliminarily in the learning process, which is context expansion — but to truly learn and understand, we all must at some point retain instead of repeat.

    Among all memory skills, verbatim memorization is a unique beast.

    Even the memory experts — the world champions — agree with this. None of the three primary memory methods most popular today and throughout history — the link system, the peg system, the Method-of-Loci — are quite suited for verbatim memorization, which is also called learning-by-heart.

    Why is this so? Why are these excellent and popular methods quite suitable for verbatim memorization?

    The answer to that question is not straightforward, nor is there unanimous agreement among the memory experts.

    My opinion is that it’s because the smaller, less significant words — the articles and connectives like “a,” “and,” “but,” “so,” “the” — they’re difficult to link with specific images or associated words.

    What follows, however, is without any doubt the fastest and most effective method for learning verbatim literature by heart. No one seems to know for certain who invented it, or even precisely when it came about, but it’s generally agreed that it was developed by actresses and actors who sought a faster means by which to learn their lines for the stage.

    Try it with me now. It’s challenging and takes a little practice, but it’s fun.

    First, read aloud the following short poem, which was penned by Thom Gunn, an English poet who wrote very cerebral and sophisticated poems for adults, and yet also charming children’s poems like this one:


    Shark, with your mouth tucked under
    That severs like a knife,
    You leave no time for wonder
    In your swift thrusting life.

    You taste blood. It’s your brother’s
    And at your side he flits
    But blood, like any other’s.
    You bite him into bits.

    Read it aloud one more time. Aloud, I repeat, even if it’s just to yourself.

    Do not try to memorize it, but do pay attention — i.e. read it closely, carefully, slowly, aloud.

    And then again: one final read through.

    It’s even better if you copy it out with pen or pencil onto paper, but you don’t have to do this. Simply read it to yourself two or three times with your full attention.

    Now scroll down the screen here, or cover the words of the poem in such a way that you cannot see the poem, and then look at the following letters. These are the first letters of each word in the poem. With the prompting of these first letters now, see how much of the poem you remember (and please note that the overwhelming majority of people, myself included, will not be able to get them all at this point):

    S, w, y, m, t,u t, s, l, a, k, y, l, n, t, f, w, i, y, s, t, l, y, t, b, i, y, b, a, a, y, s, h, f, b, b, l, a, o, y, b, h, i, b.

    If you missed many words, it’s no big deal. It’s all a part of the process. Simply go back and reread the poem one or two more times. Then try the letters again. And again. And again. It doesn’t matter at all how many times it takes. I assure you, you will know this poem verbatim, rapidly, by going through this simple process several times — and the number of times does not in the least matter.

    Please process that: the amount of times it takes doesn’t matter at all.

    Your verbatim learning of this poem will happen, and it will happen fast — no matter the specific number of times any one of us requires. Just keep looking at the first letters, getting as many of them as you’re able, and then go back to the poem when you come upon letters you do not yet recall.

    I do assure you of this: if you make the small effort, without any self-conscious or concern whatsoever over how many times it takes you to get the precise word that the letter stands for, you will have this poem by heart in rapid fashion.

    It is, I say again, the fastest method for learning any literature by heart. And it does work for lengthy passages too, though of course that takes longer and more practice. I’ve even heard of people learning the entire New Testament by this exact method! I’ve also read about many actresses and actors who routinely and entirely memorize full Shakespeare and Ibsen plays — i.e. not just their own lines — by means of this method.

    Practice it with anything you like — poems, plays, passages, paragraphs, sentences — it doesn’t matter.

    The more you practice it, the better at it you’ll become.

    I promise you that.

    I also promise you that the amount of practice you or anyone requires is totally individual, as it is also totally irrelevant.

    I keep mentioning this because I’ve worked with people who get completely hung up and then stultified by that precise thing: their concern that it’s taking them too long to remember what each letter stands for. I repeat for emphasis: it does not matter at all.

    This is by far the fastest, most effective, efficient method for learning literature by heart. I urge you to incorporate into your life and keep practicing it and using it — all throughout your life. It will take your learning to a whole new level because it truly possesses the power to revolutionize for the better the way you remember and think.

    As a matter of fact, when I was first shown this method and told how revolutionary it is and then tried it for myself, I was at first underwhelmed — at first. But after practicing it a few times (for about an hour straight) I completely understood. And I now not only think it’s revolutionary — I know it is. I can testify to it personally.

    Grant me one thing: a full hour of diligent, focused practice, with any poems and literature you choose, using this method, and if it doesn’t noticeably improve your memory in that one focused hour, I won’t suggest it to you again. But you have to give it one hour of fully focused practice.

    Deal, seal?

    The second method for verbatim memorization is also very effective, if not quite as fast as the first. It is an excellent method — underused, in my opinion — and I believe there’s yet some undiscovered way to more fully harness its total power.

    The method I’m referring to is this: find or make up a melody for the words of the poem or passage you wish to memorize. It can be any tune already know or you dream up.

    It can be a horrible tune or it can be a euphonious tune or it can be an absurd or profound tune — or all of the above. It doesn’t matter.

    I myself use this method effectively, and I have been since I was a young child. Its power is fundamentally sourced in the way melody and music remains fixed in the human mind — all of us, beginning early on in childhood.

    This method does definitely take practice and doing and patience, but it also definitely does work (even if you’re not musically inclined), as it also, like everything, gets easier with practice. The proof that it works is found in the fact that we all — every one of us,— remember songs and things by means of music that we were taught from way back, things we remember word-for-word, dating from years and years ago, things like television commercials or radio ads or songs our kindergarten teacher taught us, and we remember them, moreover, with complete clarity — uncanny, unmatched clarity.

    Why is this so?

    For one reason alone: the melody.

    The human mind has a special way of processing and therefore remembering tunes.

    And memory, never forget, is depth of processing.

    “All knowledge is but remembrance,” wrote Cicero.

    The human mind is conceptual — and for this precise reason and no reason but this the human mind holds vice-like to words and phrases set to music.

    I even recall a silly song from the television show Cheers — a song one of the characters came up with to help him remember a geography test he was required to take:

    🎶“Albania! Albania! It borders on the Adriatic….”🎵

    I wasn’t even a fan of the television show Cheers, I almost never watched it, and I only saw that particular episode (at my friend Ricky’s house) exactly one time, at least two decades ago, and, for better or worse, the tune is burned indelibly into my brain.

    Find the music, therefore, that exists inside your heart, and in this way learn by heart the literature which you set to your own tune, your own beat, your own secret score, and you will make that literature sing inside you for the rest of your life.

    For method number three, let me reiterate and emphasize that some repetition is necessary and indispensable for learning any literature by heart.

    But please never forget to always ultimately strive for recall rather than repeat — by which I mean, recall and retention is always the goal and the end you’re striving for: to retain and recall the information, by engaging with the words in such a way that you vividly picture them and integrate them in your existing body of knowledge, rather than only parroting the words by rote repetition. If my particular pictures and images in the following don’t work for you, simply come up with your own. That is a crucial principle to point out and emphasize, and so I’ll repeat it:

    Come up with your own images and pictures. It is the basis of this method because the crux of this method is found in the specific images and pictures that you and you alone remember — for whatever reason.

    Reading a poem or passage over and over again, without integration or processing — i.e. without engaging the brain — is the long and drawn-out road to true memorization, which means to learn and know.

    Please go through the following poem with me. It’s an obscure poem by an American poetess, who’s not well-known but whom I admire very much. Her name is May Swenson.

    I chose this particular poem for two reasons: it’s strange and difficult to memorize; and I myself, at this moment in my life, have only read it two times, and both of those times were long ago, and so I don’t know the poem even close to by heart. I can therefore learn it by heart right now with you, alongside you.

    I beseech you, please, to take the time to go through the following with me. What I’m about to describe may at first seem elaborate and even confusing, but I have a genuine surprise waiting for you at the end: something wonderful which you won’t see coming, and I’m not click-bating you or stringing you along when I say that. (We just met!) But you must first go through this with me in order to get that wonderful thing. I promise you will find fully rewarding what I have waiting for you.

    The first thing to do is read the poem once through and then write it down — preferably on paper, with pen or pencil — and most of all pay attention to each word as you’re reading and then writing the poem. You’re not trying to memorize here, but only seeking to develop a cursory familiarity with each word. That’s why I suggest write it down or type it in. But you don’t have to ever do that provided you pay full attention when you read it through.

    If you don’t want to take the time to write it, make sure to at least read every word carefully and thoughtfully.

    Here’s the title:

    Four-Word Lines

    To remember that title, we might think of the double meaning, which the poetess undoubtedly intended: “forward lines” and “four-word lines.”

    Here’s the first half of the poem:

    Your eyes are just
    like bees, and I
    feel like a flower.
    Their brown power makes
    a breeze go over
    my skin. When your
    lashes ride down and
    rise like brown bees’
    legs, your pronged gaze
    makes my eyes gauze.

    I’d like for you to try this with me now:

    Picture yourself on a beautiful spring morning waking up alone in your bedroom, and the moment you open your eyes, you find yourself looking at a photo of one whom you love very much. This photo sits upon your dresser which, in turn, sits directly across from where you lay, freshly awoken, in your bed.

    Now imagine that the loved one in the photo, who’s staring directly back at you, has eyes which in the half-light of morning are just like bees, and you, the moment you come awake, feel like a flower.

    Say those words over one or two more times and really strive to picture the scene I’ve just described and which you’ve recreated in your brain:

    Your eyes are just
    like bees, and I
    feel like a flower.

    Process those images — waking up in the morning, seeing the photo of a loved one, and matching it to the words of the poem — as much and as deeply as you can.

    Process it along with the images I gave, and try to get just that one sentence down. Remember also what I wrote a moment ago: these images and pictures are mine, and use them not as specifics but as a general illustration of the method and principle I’m describing. If, therefore, my images and pictures don’t work or you don’t like them, always from here on out, for the rest of your life, use only your own images and mental pictures for this method. This works but its entirely predicated the specific images and mental that mean something to you and to each of us individually. Please don’t dismiss this method because my specific images used here to illustrate the methods don’t work for you or appeal to you. It’s the underlying principle at issue here, not the specifics.

    Use your own images and mental pictures. Mine are merely an example and illustration of the method.

    Take special note in the poem that the first sentence is two similes connected by the word “and” — and I say “take special note” because I’ll bring it up again later, in a slightly different context.

    Hear yourself speak those words to your loved one in the photo. Say aloud to your loved one:

    “Your eyes are just like bees, and I feel like a flower.”

    Now imagine yourself writing those same words in giant letters on your white bed sheets in chocolate-brown magic marker. See yourself forming each letter that makes up each word, and see yourself writing it in four-line verse, just as May Swenson wrote it, and then see yourself reading the words you’ve just written in magic marker. You have to go through this mentally and with full focus because that is deep processing. It is thinking. And that is what true memory really is.

    For myself, in trying to recall those first lines, I’ve twice forgotten the word “just.”

    Now move on with me to the next lines. Imagine that you feel a breeze coming from somewhere. You rise from your bed and go to your window, which is open. Work to actually feel the cool spring wind go over your skin. You look outside and see two large brown trucks right below your window, engines idling with such power that they make a breeze go over my skin.

    Close your eyes for a moment and actually picture this. Actually feel it.

    Now repeat it from the beginning, and make the mental effort to see the images and feel the breeze and recall the words you wrote in chocolate-brown marker upon your bed sheets.

    Your eyes are just
    like bees, and I
    feel like a flower.
    Their brown power makes
    a breeze go over
    my skin.

    You see what we’re striving for here?

    We’re striving to create images that attach to the words and thus make the process of recall much different from rote learning and mindless repetition, over and over, without any real thought. We’re learning by creating real thoughts, through images and mental scenarios, which attach to the words.

    One particularly challenging thing about verbatim memorization is that any given writer will use any given word that’s different from the word or words you or I might have chosen writing the same lines or in a similar context. For instance, going through this poem now, I’ve so far struggled to remember “just” and “makes” (in “makes a breeze go over”), as well as “go over” because these are not the words I myself would have used in writing this poem. That is an important and significant principle in the very thing I described at the beginning of this article: the value and importance of learning literature by heart is in the fact that it enriches and enhances our reasoning and thinking, and this is one of the ways in which it does so: we learn firsthand the language that other thinkers have used to form and articulate their thoughts. In doing this, we enlarge our vocabulary — specifically, in the ways other fellow humans have articulated their thoughts. I, for instance, will now forever after have at my mental fingertips those words and phrases I just described above as giving me trouble to remember because I myself would not have chose them. After this, however, I will: at the very minimum, they will be an option. My powers of articulation and thought have in this way grown already.

    For each specific word that you notice giving you trouble, make special note of it, and then make the effort to create an image that helps you process it more deeply —deep processing is memory — after which, continue on. You most certainly don’t have to have it down perfectly before you continue.

    Keep in mind always the thing I already mentioned: the most difficult part about recalling literature verbatim is the small and seemingly inconsequential words — the articles, prepositions, connectives, so on.

    Next see yourself writing the words on your bedroom wall, just as you did on the white bedsheet, but you’re next to the open window now, and you’re still using the chocolate-brown magic marker.

    Write each word slowly and gigantically — as big as you can — and visualize the words you’ve written upon the wall.

    Now imagine turning from the window — below which the brown trucks are idling with such power that it makes a breeze go over my skin — and see yourself next striding into your bathroom.

    In the mirror above the sink, there is a clear reflection in the bedroom of the eyes of the loved one in the photo. But this time those brown bee-eyes blink — yes: they blink while you’re watching them, and it astonishes you. They blink slowly — so slowly that the lashes ride down and rise like brown bees’ legs.

    Think of the lashes like actual bees’ legs, rising.

    Visualize this image disproportionately, enormously, inordinately.

    Consider as well May Swenson’s obvious love for this person’s eyes — eyes with so much depth and beauty that for May Swenson, the eyes pulse with life, like concentric circles of energy radiating outward.

    Perhaps also you quite naturally think of bees’ legs here, since the loved one’s eyes already are just like bees, and so it is no stretch now for you to actually picture the lovely long lashes ride down and rise like brown bees’ legs, and perhaps, as well, the slightly peculiar-looking apostrophe at the end of the word bees’ helps you to see these words more clearly.

    Next you see in that pronged (and what an unusual and delightful word-choice “pronged” is here, meaning: to pierce or stab, as with a pitchfork) — you see that pronged gaze (not “pronged eyes,” not “pronged stare,” both of which I keep wanting to say, but gaze), and to you your loved one’s pronged gaze is so touching and so beautiful that the beauty of this gaze makes you whisper words to yourself:

    “The beauty of your pronged gaze,” you softly say, “makes my eyes gauze.”

    Say this again and picture it again — picture, perhaps, your eyes staring into the bathroom mirror, but now your eyes are suddenly wounded from beauty and covered in two gauze bandages:

    … your pronged gaze
    makes my eyes gauze.

    Now with or without looking back at the text — it doesn’t matter — go through it all again, step-by-step as you wake up, as you move and write, from the beginning:

    Your eyes are just
    like bees, and I
    feel like a flower.
    Their brown power makes
    a breeze go over
    my skin. When your
    lashes ride down and
    rise like brown bees’
    legs, your pronged gaze
    makes my eyes gauze.

    But please stick with me. Please. It takes a lot of words to describe this process, and yet once you’re through it, you can do it on your own, in the privacy of your mind, more efficiently and more quickly, but even more important than that: there’s a very specific reason I’m doing it this way, and I ask you to continue with me.

    Please keep reading.

    Recall and read once more the exact lines you’ve just written in red lipstick across your mirror, and for which we’ve created these living, breathing memories. Say the words aloud again now. It doesn’t matter at all how many times you have to go back and look at the words in order to recall them. The most important thing is to picture the images you’ve created in your brain, including the big letters you’ve written to spell out the words. Think of the images until you feel those ten lines are fairly familiar —and I say again, no need to worry about their being fully memorized.

    Here now is the second half of the poem. Read it once closely and write it down on paper — or at the very least, pay careful attention to the words as you’re reading them:

    I wish we were
    in some shade and
    no swarm of other
    eyes to know that
    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    your bees’ warm stare.
    I’d let you wade
    in me and seize
    with your eager brown
    bees’ power a sweet
    glistening at my core.

    The end.

    That is the whole poem.

    Take notice now of the delicate and heartfelt — yet totally tasteful and even touching — sexual connotations this poem develops in its second half: almost like the accumulation of a dramatic power begun in the first ten lines.

    I urge you to use this sexual imagery to your memory’s advantage.

    Memory loves outstanding images — and I mean outstanding images of any and all kinds — and few things are more outstanding than the sexually arousing.

    Memory masters the wide world over will testify to using R-and-X-rated images all the time — precisely because these images stay lodged inside the brain.

    Notice also in this poem’s second half that there are only two total sentences, and this, in a certain way, can make the poem more difficult to chunk, since the chunks have few natural stopping points. The strangeness of the lines composed in four-line stanzas also presents particular memory challenges — at least for me. But this is a small matter, and you will soon see why I say that.

    We move now from the bathroom to the kitchen, which is unlit and hushed in shades of silence. The kitchen is like some shade.

    Let us envision ourselves taking a big stick of sidewalk chalk — kohl-black in color — and scrawling gigantic words with this big piece of kohl chalk all across the kitchen walls. The words we scribble out are that entire first sentence, broken into four-line verse:

    I wish we were
    in some shade and
    no swarm of other
    eyes to know that
    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    your bees’ warm stare.

    Truly watch yourself scrawling out each letter of each word, in gigantic letters, and then stepping back and reading it. Read it aloud. See yourself carving the words upon your kitchen wall, and say the words out loud as you’re completing them:

    I wish we were
    in some shade and
    no swarm of other
    eyes to know that
    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    your bees’ warm stare.

    You see the words hugely, written by your own hand, upon the wall. Say again those two lines aloud:

    I wish we were
    in some shade and…

    Find and feel the rhythm of her lines, or sing or hum them.

    Picture yourself now relaxed in that shade, as you are right now in the shade of your kitchen, and feel how much you wish for it.

    I wish we were
    in some shade and
    no swarm
    [think of other littler bees, perhaps, swarming] of other
    eyes to know that
    [eyes to know!]
    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    YOUR bees’ warm stare.

    I emphasized the word YOUR this time so that it might aid us in recalling what for me may be the most difficult passage to hold. Nothing, however, about this is so difficult — and do you know why I say so?

    Because the process is enjoyable. Because memory is fun. Because we’re using our minds, growing our brains: we’re thinking, recreating, perpending.

    It is, I repeat, perfectly fine to keep going back and looking at the words and reminding yourself of them. Simply continue seeing the images each time you do:

    I wish we were
    in some shade and
    no swarm of other
    eyes to know that
    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    your bees’ warm stare.

    I’d like for you to pay special attention to the rhyme, as well as that wildly arresting image:

    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    your bees’ warm stare.

    Another memory link here, in addition to the gentle rhyme — bare/stare — is the equally gentle alliteration: “wish we were” … “some shade and swarm” … “breathing bare, laid open to your bees’ …”

    It also calls to my mind the Pink Floyd song “Wish you were here.”

    Most urgently, however (and this is the thing I twice referenced above that I told you I would return to), I want you to notice now in particular May Swenson’s relentless and relentlessly brilliant metaphor idea-development here — a strange but I think stupendously poetic idea — which she somewhere somehow got hold of and then opened up like a flower to show us. Reading it closely now, it struck me all at once that she turned it into something magical and immense:

    Her idea begins in the very beginning — lines 1 and 2 — when she compares her lover’s eyes to bees. As mentioned, she uses two similes connected with the word and. Also, let me emphasize that her lover’s eyes are not like bees’ eyes, but actual bees:

    Your eyes are just
    like bees, and I
    feel like a flower.

    This is how her strange idea is introduced.

    Recall when I said that the opening sentence is two similes connected by the word “and.” The reason I asked you to take special note of this is that I now — only now, in striving to learn this poem by heart — see how crucial it is to the meaning and depth of the entire poem.

    Observe how her idea has hereby grown — specifically, I mean, in how far she’s gone into her idea, a mere fifteen short lines later: your bees’ warm stare.

    Take a moment and think what that means.

    When I was going through the poem, learning it by heart, just like you, that line suddenly leapt out at me — yet only after these several rereadings in trying to memorize the poem.

    It leapt out at me in a way I can only think of as a kind of hyper-metaphor:

    May Swenson is now no longer even bothering to call her lover’s eyes “eyes” — and why? Why does she not?

    Because they aren’t eyes anymore.

    They’re bees.

    They’ve transformed completely.

    A poetic transformation has taken place.

    Take a moment and reread that line and consider it from the aspect I’m suggesting here. Does it strike you as it struck me? Such a daring and wild idea?

    Recall also, in this same context, the words I am like a flower from the second line of the poem. Notice now, some fifteen lines later, it too is brought back — except this time, this deep into the conceit, she’s transformed as well: she’s no longer like a flower — she is a flower. Furthermore, she wants her loved one to know that she’s a flower — and more than that even: she wants her loved one to know that she’s a flower breathing bare, laid open to your bees’ [i.e. eyes] warm stare.

    This is nothing less than a total transfiguration taking place before us in the poem — perhaps even a transmogrification: two beings metamorphosing with the pace of the poem into full-blown flower and bee.


    For at no point in the entirety of this poem is her lover’s flesh or physical being ever referenced as anything more (or less) than eyes and eyelashes.

    It is incredible.

    It is beautiful.

    It is an amazingly original idea.

    And it’s only now, in striving to learn the poem by heart, that I’ve understood it to this depth — a depth which I’m now certain May Swenson fully intended.

    Please let me stress again that I’m fully aware how convoluted this feels and how unhelpful to memory it surely seems. Stick with me, please.

    It is far more time-consuming to explain than to actually do, and by the end of this article you will see all of this in a clean and streamlined way, which seems almost inconceivable now.

    I urge you also once again to get explicit in the privacy of your own mind with your images, and truly seek to feel these things. I promise you this process — learning to read in this way — will amplify your memory for every single thing you read. Just this one thing alone: get explicit in the privacy of your own mind with your images, and truly seek to feel these things.

    I do assure you also that it will become easier to do the more that you integrate this focused reading method into your life — because you will have developed new methods whereby you process words more profoundly, on a level completely personal and individualized.

    Deep processing is memory.

    One more time from the beginning of the second half, please imagine scrawling in kohl-black chalk these words onto your kitchen wall, and say them aloud as you do so:

    I wish we were
    in some shade and
    no swarm of other
    eyes to know that
    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    your bees’ warm stare.

    Picture yourself moving from the shade of the kitchen and now stepping outside, through a sliding glass door, and wading into green grass alive and swarming with bees.

    I’d let you wade
    in me and seize
    with your eager brown
    bees’ power a sweet
    glistening at my core.

    Note: seize.

    Note: eager brown bees’.

    Go through each word of these final five lines, and for each word make an image so bright and brilliant and evocative that in your mind’s eye, the scene you’ve created actually looks and feels alive and burning.

    Write these last five lines in smoking hot-pink paint upon the glass of the sliding door. See yourself writing each letter of each word, and speak the words aloud as you write them.

    Now stand back and look at the words written in four-line stanzas, in smoking hot-pink paint upon the glass, and then go back to the very beginning, when you first woke in your bed and opened your eyes.

    Proceed through the poem in full, word-for-word, step-for-step: from writing on your bedsheets in chocolate-brown magic marker; to the window when you wrote the words upon the wall; to the bathroom when you wrote upon the bathroom mirror with lipstick, and then to the shade of the kitchen, using kohl-black chalk to scrawl upon the kitchen wall. At last wading in the grass outside, and painting pinkly upon your sliding-glass door.

    Go back and read the whole poem again here, aloud, and try to anticipate what word and line comes next. But don’t worry at all about having it by heart.

    Four-Word Lines

    Your eyes are just
    like bees, and I
    feel like a flower.
    Their brown power makes
    a breeze go over
    my skin. When your
    lashes ride down and
    rise like brown bees’
    legs, your pronged gaze
    makes my eyes gauze.
    I wish we were
    in some shade and
    no swarm of other
    eyes to know that
    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    your bees’ warm stare.
    I’d let you wade
    in me and seize
    with your eager brown
    bees’ power a sweet
    glistening at my core.

    — May Swenson (1913–1989)

    Test yourself again to see how much you can recite. It doesn’t matter in the least how many times you need to look back at the words to remind yourself. And, for the record, there’s no doubt that this is a difficult poem to memorize. But don’t let that discourage you.

    Remember: memory is fun.

    Remember also: I still have a surprise in store for you.

    But before I reveal that surprise, please look at the following, which are the first letters of each word in the poem.

    Now, using the prompting of these first letters alone, see how many words you can recall:


    y, e, a, j,
    l, b, a, i,
    f, l, a, f.
    t, b, p, m,
    a, b, g, o,
    m, s. w, y,
    l, r, d, a,
    r, l, b, b,
    l, y, p, g,
    m, m, e, g.
    I, w, w, w,
    i, s, s, a,
    n, s, o, o,
    e, t, k, t,
    i, a, f, b,
    b, l, o, t,
    y, b, w, s.
    i, l, y, w,
    i, m, a, s,
    w, y, e, b,
    b, p, a, s,
    g, a, m, c.

    If you don’t have it all — which most people won’t yet — don’t fret. Don’t fear. Don’t become anxious. Do not trouble your mind about such trivial matters. Simply keep going back and checking the words against the corresponding letter, and you will soon have this poem.

    You will.

    And now at last the surprise I’ve promised you:

    I promised that if you go through this whole thing with me — and you did, and I thank you! (it was much work) — my surprise would not disappoint you, and I’m now prepared to uphold my end of our bargain:

    Apart from how thoroughly you do or don’t have this poem in your heart, I want you to please notice now how much farther you’ve gone into it, and how much more the poem has yielded up to you just in doing that.

    Observe, by introspecting, how in this relatively brief time, May Swenson’s poem “Four-Word Lines” has now in a small but significant way become a part of you — a part of your psyche, your mind, your thoughts, your vocabulary.

    It is there to stay, reader, no matter if you forever remember this poem fully by heart or not. Those words, structured in the way May Swenson structured them, have forever joined the ceaseless flow of your individualized thought, which is uniquely you and therefore unlike anything that’s ever existed or will exist.

    Please observe also how close and even connected you feel to May Swenson’s words, her word choices, her structure of syntax.

    Observe how, through attempting memorize, her words have moved into your mentality.

    Observe within yourself how much deeper you can now appreciate your reading of this poem — whether you like it or not doesn’t matter: it isn’t even the point.

    Simply observe how much more profoundly you’ve gone into the depths of the poem, and how by virtue of having gone into this far in, creating your own living burning images for the words and doing so in tandem with May Swenson’s, you now possess and grasp this poem in a manner which thirty minutes ago you did not approach — not even close.

    Nor did I.

    You’ve immersed yourself in these words — which are abstract ideas and mental images — and in so doing you’ve made these abstract ideas into concreted things. They’ve taken form before you, within you. You now understand and apprehend something new — something new and therefore in a manner you’ve never quite had before.

    In this way, you’ve grown your mind.

    And so have I.

    We’ve grown my minds significantly, in less than thirty minutes.

    That is the power of learning literature by heart.

    That is my awesome surprise for you — the surprise I couldn’t possibly build up too much.

    That alone is the total testament to the magic of memorizing literature verbatim, even if you don’t forever recall every single word of every single line from here on out. Because the process alone — having gone through it with me as we did — made thin grooves: grooves which you’ve carved into the clay channels of your brain, opening it up, allowing it to expand, breathe, like grooves in a record bearing beautiful melodies.

    Those living grooves will always remain.

    Please don’t let anyone ever convince you that literature doesn’t matter. Because not only does literature matter: it matters the most. Because human-beings think by means of words and grammar, and thinking is by definition a thoroughly individualized act.

    This, reader, is why actresses and actors feel so enriched after learning Shakespeare by heart.

    Because memory, never forget, is both skill and an art.

    May Swenson (1913–1989)

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

6 Responses and Counting...

  • Ms. 12.24.2019

    So much fun! I love this exercise! I use to do something similar when memorizing scientific plant names, but this goes beyond that! And I can feel new neural pathways alive within me! Thanks for sharing!

  • Thank you, you absolutely wonderful human!

    For taking the time to go through all that and then comment, I have another surprise for you. I talked a certain someone I know into a certain something for this certain post:


  • “Sing it, Sam!” – Coach


  • You found it!

  • Thank you, Sir Ray. I will certainly be sharing this with thousands over the next few years of my career, as it is the most compassionate and compelling logical impart I’ve ever come across “to memorize some good shit for your own fucking goodness sake.”

    Aside from quips, jokes, quotes, lots o’ songs/lyrics… it was passion that led me to memorize this six decades ago:

    Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.

    Norman Maclean
    American writer
    A River Runs Through it and Other Stories

    … not long comparatively, I know, but a hurdle and then subsequent hook for me as a teenager in the late ’70s.

    Thank you for putting into written words what students need to hear… especially, the WHY part, which many kids need before they can grok.

  • Thank you, my dear friend, amazing human.

    Thank you.

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