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.  It 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 sophisticated, high-speed day-and-age — this sleek and glamorous Instagram age  — 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 forever within you.

    This is no small thing.

    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.

    The language of it becomes a part of you. It becomes a part of your mind, which is the locus of your personality: the basis of your essential self.

    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 comprehend— join the ceaseless flow of your thoughts.

    Your thoughts are you.

    My thoughts are me.

    We are what we think, said Spinoza.

    We live as we think.

    Our thoughts directly shape our very person which is our personality.

    The reason this is so is that humans live by means of thinking, and thinking done by means of words.

    “Thinking is linked-up with language and vice-versa. Concepts are embodied in words. Language is a tool of thinking,” wrote the incomparable Ludwig von Mises, in his incomparable masterpiece Human Action.

    Without language, there can be no conceptual process.

    Conceptualizing is thinking. The words are synonymous.

    When, therefore, you learn a poem or passage by heart, you perforce become enmeshed with that poem or passage. The words of it join like a confluence the ceaseless flow of your thoughts — your thoroughly individualized context-of-knowledge, which no two people remotely possess in common.

    In this way the poem or passage you’ve learned by heart thus becomes a part of you, forever. It’s a part of you that’s exclusive to you and exclusively you — you and you alone — because no two people have anything close to the same life experiences and therefore contexts-of-knowledge, all of which comes about by means of a uniquely human faculty called volition.

    Once you’ve learned any poem or passage by heart, you’re forever after able to contemplate the poem on a more profoundly personal level — a deeper level — because you now possess the words inside your individualized mind, which means that you’ve integrated them into a context that no one else possesses. This is why each poem or story or passage of literature, each song, each movie, each essay or book is profoundly personal to each person who knows it.

    Those words have forever joined the ceaseless flow of your thoughts — so much so that, once learned, the words are in a very real and literal sense your thoughts. You know them by heart. You therefore use these words for the rest of your life to think and reason with greater clarity and to see and hear them in a more colorful, personal way , and also to establish a wider context of knowledge, which builds upon the context of knowledge you have been building all your life, as we all have.

    Learning is a process of context-building and context-expansion. It is nothing more and nothing less.

    The language you learn by heart forever after lives within you.

    This language then runs like a river through the channels of your mind — and it always will — no matter if you forget certain words or passages at any given time. It was once there. It is still there.

    “The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things do not come to mind when we want them,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, correctly.

    The process of memorizing by heart is fundamentally no different from the process each and every child goes through in learning new words, growing her vocabulary, expanding her context.

    Vocabulary building is context expansion.

    Vocabulary building is learning.

    This is the power and importance of learning literature by heart.

    When, therefore, you truly memorize, learn, retain something, even if you do forget parts of it later, you will forever after possess the thing inside you — and in a way you never did before: a way that will forever enrich you and grow 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 even close to the same experiences.

    The words you’ve learned by heart are in this way blended with your own body-of-context — the way you and you alone have come to experience the world and look upon the universe — and that outlook is exclusively yours, and it always will be yours, and it will never be anybody else’s.

    “The world is for each peculiar and private to each individual soul,” wrote T.S. Eliot.

    I think his observation here is as true as it is profound, and profoundly beautiful.

    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, memorizing and learning literature by heart expands the scope of the entire learning process. It expands our minds and our ability to think. If intelligence is defined as the ability to deal with thoughts and ideas — and intelligence most certainly is properly defined this way—then memorizing and learning literature by heart, in very real sense, increases our intelligence.

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

    Memory is method.

    Please never forget that.

    There are no such things as poor memories. There are only untrained memories.

    The foundation upon which all memory is built and the bedrock on which all memory is grounded and buried — no matter how great it becomes—is in the following thing and no other: the act of paying attention. The process of being aware.

    “The true art of memory is the art of attention,” wrote Samuel Johnson.

    I know of no memory expert — even world memory champions of the highest order, world-record holders, past or present — who disagree with Samual Johnson’s statement. All pneumonic devices, no matter how clever, no matter how sophisticated, no matter how ingenious and effective, are predicated upon that foundation: you must first and foremost pay attention.

    I repeat:

    To have a great memory, there’s one and only one fundamental requirement: you have to pay attention.

    You must maintain focus.

    Every single pneumonic device yet invented, no matter how sophisticated, no matter how ingenious, no matter how helpful, is predicated upon this one foundational premise: you must first maintain your focus and pay attention. If you don’t, no memory trick or pneumonic device will help you at all.

    Human consciousness, arguably the most complex thing in the known universe, operates by means of reason and apprehension — which is to say, words and the act of processing these words. To process words is to reason.

    To reason is to think.

    To think is to apprehend.

    To apprehend is to comprehend.

    To comprehend is to grasp.

    To grasp is to understand.

    All those words — reason, think, grasp, comprehend, apprehend, understand — they are all synonymous.

    “All knowledge is but remembrance,” wrote Plato.

    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 excellence of learning literature by heart is for these very reasons incalculable in how it enriches human existence.

    My desire in this article is to fully persuade you of the immeasurable excellence of 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 or knowledge.

    All knowledge is contextual, as it is also hierarchical. Indeed, hierarchical in this sense is a type of context.

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

    Retaining, integrating, synthesizing — they all mean that you’re gaining knowledge. Specifically, you’re blending new information and data into information and data that your brain already has stored inside it. This is what is meant by blending or integrating or synthesizing. You’re adding to it, as you would add new things to a recipe you’ve started or to a home you’ve already begun building. You’re adding these things in an integrated way, a way seamlessly blended and synthesized.

    That and nothing but that is the process of learning new things. It’s not rote repetition.

    Rote repetition can only be of some help at first — in the initial period of time you’re first becoming familiar with something.

    All knowledge, I say again, is a process of context expansion.

    When you learn a new word by looking it up in the dictionary, the definition is expanding your context by means of other words — similar words.

    Repeating, upon the other hand, means that you’re merely parroting. It means that you’re going through the motions mechanically, without actual learning. This, I say again, can be and often is helpful at first — preliminarily in the act of familiarizing yourself with new material — but to truly learn and understand, we all must at some point process the material. Which is to say, we must integrate it. We must synthesize it. We must blend it into our existing body of knowledge that’s already stored inside our mind.

    And all of that is to say, we must learn through a process of integration to retain instead of going through mechanical motions of mere parroting or repeation.

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

    Even the greatest memory experts — the world champions, I mean, past, present, and future — agree with this.

    None of the three primary pneumonic memory methods most popular today and always — the link system, the peg system, the Method-of-Loci — are quite suited for verbatim memorization, which is also known as learning-by-heart.

    Why is this so?

    Why are these excellent and popular memory techniques not quite suitable for verbatim memorization, which is the very thing that stage acting, for instance, requires?

    The answer to that question is not straightforward, and there’s no unanimous agreement among the memory experts for exactly why this is.

    One opinion — and it’s the opinion I myself share — is that it’s the smaller, less significant words which pose the most difficulty: the articles and prepositions and connectives (like “a,” “and,” “but,” “so,” “the,” “at,” “which,” “that” et cetera, which can and often are replaced by similar words). These articles, prepositions, and connectives — the smaller, less significant words — are much more difficult to link with specific images or associated words, especially in long passages of literature.

    Linking and word association is integral component to all pneumonic systems of memory.

    Never forget that.

    Attention is the engine of all memory.

    Association is the ignition of all memory.

    What follows is without any doubt whatsoever the fastest and most effective method for learning verbatim any literature by heart.

    No one seems to know for certain who invented it, or even precisely when it was invented. But it is generally agreed that it was developed by actresses and actors who sought a faster method by which to learn verbatim their lines for the stage and screen

    Try it with me now. It’s challenging and takes a little practice, but I do assure you, if you practice it just a little bit, you will quickly see how effective it is, and also how genuinely fun it is.

    First, read aloud the following short poem, which was penned by Thom Gunn, an English poet I much admire, who wrote very cerebral and sophisticated poems for adults, and yet he also 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 to the words you’re reading — i.e. read it closely, carefully, aloud.

    Pay attention.

    And then once again: a final read through while you pay attention the entire time to the words you’re reading.

    This will work 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 focus.

    Now scroll down your computer or phone 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, which I’ve typed in directly below. These are the first letters of each word in the poem. With the prompting of only these first letters now, see how much of the poem you remember (and please note: 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 several words —or even a great many words, or even the majority of them — this does not matter in the least. You’re just familiarizing yourself at this point.

    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 can and do absolutely assure you, you will know this poem verbatim, rapidly, by going through this simple process several times — and the number of times it takes doesn’t in the least matter. Please process that last sentence: the amount of times it takes doesn’t matter at all. Put that out of your mind.

    I harp on this because it is this more than anything else that discourages people — at which point, they write it off and quit trying.

    But you’re not going to do that. You’re going to give yourself 45 minutes.

    Your verbatim learning of this poem will happen, and it will happen fast — no matter the specific number of times any one of us needs to keep going back and rereading it. 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 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 entire 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 fact because I’ve worked with people who get completely hung up and then stultified by this 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. They develop an unearned sense of guilt and self-consciousness that ruins their confidence, sometimes for life.

    This method is, I say again, by far the fastest, most effective, efficient method for learning literature by heart.

    I urge you to incorporate it 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 the way you 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 in the extreme— at first.

    Yet after practicing it just a few times (for about 45 minutes straight) I completely understood it. I got it. I now not only think it’s revolutionary — I know it is. I testify to it personally.

    Grant me one favor: 45 minutes of diligent, focused practice with this method — any poem or passage of literature of your choosing — using this first-letter method, and if it doesn’t noticeably improve your memory in that time, I won’t suggest it to you again, and I’ll buy you a drink, and I’ll do so with great pleasure.

    My only stipulation is: you have to give fully focused practice for 45 minutes.

    That’s it.

    Do we have a deal, seal?

    The second method for verbatim memorization is also very effective, if not quite as fast as the method I’ve just described above.

    It is, however, an excellent method — underused, in my opinion — and I have an unshakable sense that there’s yet some undiscovered way to more fully harness its power.

    There’s something else to mention about the following method: it has a indelible lasting power, which is unmatched by any other method — meaning: when you learn by heart via the following method, it stays inside your brain and heart longer and stronger than by means any other method I’m aware of.

    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 known to you, or it can be a tune you dream up.

    It can be a horrible tune or it can be a euphonious tune.

    It can be an absurd tune or a profound tune.

    Or it all the above and more.

    It doesn’t matter.

    I myself use this method effectively, and I have been using since I was a young child.

    Its power is fundamentally sourced in the way melody and song remains fixed inside the human mind — all of us, beginning early on in our childhoods.

    Music and musical appreciation is a definitional and integral aspect of the conceptual mind.

    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 which we were taught from way back, things we remember word-for-word, dating from years and years ago, in preschool, kindergarten, grade-school — things like television commercials or radio ads or songs our first-grade music teachers taught us, and we remember them, moreover, with complete clarity: uncanny, unmatched clarity and specificity.

    Why is this so?

    For one reason and one reason only: the melody.

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

    Never forget: memory is depth of processing.

    “All knowledge is but remembrance,” wrote Cicero.

    We remember those things which we process most deeply.

    This is also why, as I quoted above, “the true art of memory is the art of attention.”

    The human mind is conceptual — and for this precise reason and no reason but this the human mind grips itself bto 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 a fan of the television show Cheers, and I’m still not. I almost never watched it. I only saw that particular episode (at my friend Ricky’s house) one time, some two decades ago. Yet, for better or worse, that preposterous Albania tune is burned indelibly into my brain, and I don’t see it going anywhere. Also, I’ve never forgotten that Albania borders on the Adriatic

    Therefore I say to you: find the music that exists inside your heart and mind, and in this way learn by heart the literature which you set to your own tune, your own beat, your own secret score. In so doing, you will make that literature sing inside your psyche for the rest of your life.

    For method number three, let me reiterate that some repetition is necessary — at first — for the verbatim learning of any literature by heart.

    But please never forget also:

    Strive always and ultimately for recall rather than repeat — by which I mean: true retention is true recall.

    True recall 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’ve pictured them, come to know and understand them — grasp them — and in doing so you’ll have integrated the words in your existing body of knowledge.

    At that precise point, you’re no longer parroting words. You’re not reciting words by rote, through automoton-like repetition.

    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.

    True memorization means to learn and know. That is what the following method will aid you in doing: learning and knowing, as distinguished from repetition without integration.

    If, in the following example, my particular pictures and images don’t work for you, I implore you to come up with your own pictures and images. This is an absolute crux and crucial principle to emphasize about all memory methods in general — no matter how sophisticated and effective they may be:

    You must come up with your own images and pictures.

    This is the basis of the following method in particular because the root of it — which is a variation on the so-named method-of-loci (i.e. memory garden or memory palace)— is grounded entirely in the specific images and pictures that you and you alone remember, for any reason, for whatever reason. The only principle that matters here is that it’s something which you will remember. If we went to the same high-school together for all four years, our high-school’s physical, architectural layout may work perfectly for you but not for me. Or your childhood home or home garden may work perfectly well for your brother or sister, but not for you.

    Use only images and pictures that are personally effective for you. It doesn’t matter what they are. Many memory champions use their car as a familiar location or “palace.” Many others use their own bodies, beginning with their toes and then moving up to other locations of their body. These are just a handful of examples of loci you can use to picture things. But any location you’re familiar with will work — provided you’re familiar with it and you have enough attachment to it to want to use it.

    Please go through the following poem with me.

    This is a semi-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 is a curiously strange and difficult poem to memorize — curiously, I say, because it is a brief and undeniably poetic piece, ostensibly not difficult — and, the second reason: I myself, at this moment in my life, have only read it two times, and both of those readings were long ago, and so I don’t come close to knowing the by heart. I chose it, therefore, so that I might learn it by heart right now, alongside you.

    I beseech you, please, 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 remember: it’s far more difficult to describe in writing than to actually do. In addition to which, 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. If you don’t, you won’t get it.

    I make you this promise: you will find satisfying and fully rewarding what I have waiting for you by the end.

    The first thing to do is read the poem once through and then, ideally, write it down — preferably on paper, with pen or pencil. But that last thing is not required.

    The most important thing of all, once again, is to pay attention to the words as you’re reading them.

    You’re not trying to memorize here.

    You’re only seeking to develop a cursory familiarity with each word. This is why I suggest writing it down. But you don’t have to ever do that provided you’re giving your full focus and attention while you’re reading it through.

    If you don’t want to take the time to write it, make sure to at least read every word carefully, thoughtfully. Process these words as you’re reading them. But there’s no need to try and memorize them or remember them — not at all, not at first.

    Here’s the title of the poem:

    Four-Word Lines

    When we read 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 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.

    Now that you’ve read it once through, here is the first half of the poem. Please read through it with me again:

    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’d like for you to try this with me now — keeping in your mind always that if my images and pictures and my setting do not suit you, come up with your own setting and your own images and pictures. That is a key secret to memory which I’ve never once heard a single memory expert discuss. And yet it’s a crux — the most important memory crux of all.

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

    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 images and scene I’ve just described and which you’ve recreated in your brain:

    Your eyes are just
    like bees [you think] and I
    feel like a flower.

    Process those images — just the images not the words verbatim: waking up in the morning, seeing the photo of your loved one, and then — only then — begin matching that image to the words of the poem, as much and as deeply as you can.

    Process it along with the images I’ve given, and try to get just that one sentence down — those three lines that compose the first sentende.

    Remember also what I wrote a moment ago: these images and pictures are mine, and use them not as specifics but as a general guideline 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, and for the rest of your life, use only your own images and mental pictures for this method of learning and learning by heart.

    This method, I do assure you, works. Yet it’s entirely predicated upon the specific images and mental pictures that mean something to you, and to each person individually. Please don’t dismiss this method because my specific images used here to illustrate it don’t work for you or appeal to you. That is a grave mistake, and it’s the mistake that turns so many people off of memory techniques and, ultimately, learning how to develop your brains unlimited memory.

    The underlying principle at issue here is not in the specific images I’m using. It’s in finding and creating and using images that are meaningful to you. This is what is meant by the saying “A good memory is made and built and developed, not inborn. A good memory is made by creative thinking.”

    The greatest memory champion in the world (in my personal opinion), Harry Lorraine (RIP), wrote that, and he is 100 percent correct.

    Good memory is creative thinking. This is precisely why once you discover that principle and fact, memory becomes genuinely enjoyable and fun. It’s a creative exercise, and not laborious or drudgery at all.

    Use your own images and mental pictures, I repeat. Mine are merely an example and illustration of the principle behind this 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, though 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 a 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 big words you’ve just written on your bedsheet in chocolate-brown magic marker. You have to go through this mentally and with full focus because that is what deep processing means.

    Deep processing is thinking.

    Thinking is at root what true memory consists.

    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.

    It doesn’t matter at all if you don’t have committed to heart the first sentence yet. Do not concern yourself with that.

    Imagine next that you feel a breeze coming in from somewhere. You rise from your bed and go to your window, which is open. Strive now 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 try to recall the words you wrote in big letters and 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?

    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 act of thought.

    We’re learning the words by coming to know them — by creating real thoughts, through images and mental scenarios, which attach themselves 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 were we 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” (as 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 because it brings us intimately into the mind of how another writer would express the same basic thought, 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 own vocabularies and syntax — specifically, in the ways our fellow writers and humans have thought to articulate 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 think of them: at the very minimum, they will be an option available in my brain. 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 = memory — after which, continue on. You most certainly do not have to have it down perfectly before you continue. In fact, you shouldn’t yet.

    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, and so on.

    Next see yourself writing those last 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 as you’re writing them 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, they are eyes pulsing with bee-like life, almost as thought they’re concentric circles of energy radiating outward, toward her and the world.

    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 the word and words more clearly. I say that because that apostrophe just did indeed help me.

    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 your loved one’s pronged gaze is to you so touching and so powerful that the beauty of this gaze makes you whisper words to yourself:

    “The beauty of your pronged gaze,” you might 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 of your lover’s eyes, so that you must cover your own eyes in 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 — beginning when you wake up, and then as you move and write in big letters in a chocolate-brown magic marker, 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.

    Notice here — and I regard this as extraordinarily important — May Swenson does not say my eyes are like gauze. She now makes this far more poetic and profound with the power of full metaphor:

    Makes my eyes gauze.

    My eyes are not like gauze or as though covered in gauze. Rather, your pronged gaze makes my eyes gauze.

    That, reader, is poetic writing.

    Indeed, it is also at this point in the poem that the entire piece, from here on out, shifts from simile to full-blown metaphor. I ask you to please remember what I’m saying here because, for reasons I will discuss in a moment, it’s highly significant.

    The pronged gaze of those eyes (which, in the first lines, are just like bees [and note the simile “like” — simile and not metaphor — in that first line ) are what makes my eyes gauze.

    This is the halfway point of the poem.

    I ask you to imagine yourself writing it all out again, word-for-word, line-four-line, from the beginning — except this time, see yourself writing it all in red lipstick upon your bathroom mirror. See the words you write, and write them in gigantic red letters. And please refer back to the poem as often and as much as you need. You are encouraged to do this. In fact, I insist upon it.

    You will very shortly understand why I’m insistent.

    I’m well aware that going through all this in this way —reading it in my bumbling prose, in such an elaborate and perhaps even convoluted-seeming fashion — feels the opposite of streamlined.

    I’m well aware also that it seems as though you’re remembering less compared with what you’d have already learned through dozens and dozens of repetitions. I assure you, it feels the same way to me too.

    But please stick with me. Please.

    There is a specific and profound reason I’m doing it this way.

    Remember also what I wrote above: 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, far more efficiently and far more quickly. Yet even more importantly than that: there’s a very specific reason I’m doing it this way, and I ask you, with complete deference and gratitude and respect, to continue with me to the end. We’ve not much longer to go.

    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 of the poem above 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 become somewhat 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, if you have the inclination and time — but, at the very least, pay close attention and give full focus 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 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 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-black 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, creating, recreating, perpending, and creating again and again. And creation is fun.

    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, like a magical gift special to the poetic art.

    I call your attention to it now, with some real urgency, because reading it closely this time around, it struck me all at once that May Swenson indeed turned her poem into something truly 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 like actual bees:

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

    This is how her strange idea is introduced.

    It is two similes. Now recall from a moment ago 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, and the meaning the great May Swenson intended.

    Observe how her idea has now 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 over what this means.

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

    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 is she not?

    Because they are not eyes anymore.

    In her poetic brilliance and strangeness, she’s transformed them completely.

    They’re not eyes anymore.

    They’re bees.

    A poetic transfiguration 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 strikes 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 her conceit, she’s transformed this 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: 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 metomorphosis 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.

    Yes. That is what the poetess May Swenson has done. It’s what she’s achieved, through her strange and boundless imagination, her power of creative thinking.

    Note also that at no point in the entirety of this poem is any part of her lover’s flesh or physical being is ever referenced except the eyes and eyelashes.

    Which are now bees.

    This strikes me as absolutely incredible.

    It strikes me also as entirely beautiful.

    It is a stupefying 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 intended in full.

    Please let me stress again that I’m completely aware how convoluted this feels and how unhelpful to memory it surely seems at this point. Stick with me, please. That’s all about to change.

    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 clear, limpid, streamlined way, which seems almost inconceivable to you now — and to me. But I’m fully confident that I’m not leading you astray.

    I urge you also once again to get explicit in the privacy of your own mind with your own images, and truly seek to feelthese things. Do not be afraid of the R-rated, the X-rated, the ribald, the taboo. It is you. It is your mind. And you’re a human being. All of these things are entirely human, and entirely healthy and good.

    I promise you this process — learning to read in this way — will amplify your memory for every single other thing you read, whether you seek to memorize it or not. Just this one thing alone: get explicit in the privacy of your own mind with your images, and truly seek to see and feel these things.

    I do assure you also that it will become easier to do the more that you practice it and the more you integrate this sort of 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 completely individualized.

    Deep processing, always remember, 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 burns inside your brain.

    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 — and then, at last, last wading through the tall 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 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. Instead, feel the fun and pleasure and excitement of the challenge — the challenge of creative thinking, which is the very stuff of which true memory consists.

    Remember: memory is fun.

    Remember also: I still have a major 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 at all. Rejoice and be happy, and do not feel anxious or concerned. Don’t become discouraged or troubled. Do not burden your mind with such trivial matters. This — what we’re doing — is deep processing. It’s taking the time to think deeply and reasoning closely. Simply keep going back and checking and rechecking the words against the corresponding letter, and you know what?

    You will have this poem in your heart, verbatim, faster and more thoroughly than you can easily believe.

    You will.

    Now at last I come the stupendous surprise I’ve promised you:

    I promised that if you go through this entire 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 yet have this poem in your heart, I ask you to take a moment and introspect sincerely: introspect and please notice now how much farther you’ve gone into this literature, and how much more the poem has yielded up to you just in doing what you’ve done — apart from how much of it you yet have by heart or not.

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

    That, reader, is there to stay, 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 thoughts, which are uniquely you and therefore unlike anything that’s ever existed or will exist, because no two people and no two brains are remotely alike in this respect. They’re vastly more varied than fingerprints.

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

    Observe how, through attempting memorize her brief poem, her words have moved into your mentality. They are now a part of you and the way you think and will continue to think hereafter.

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

    Simply observe how much more profoundly you’ve gone into the depths of her 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 word-choices and syntax, you now possess and grasp this poem in a manner which thirty minutes ago you did not approach — not even close.

    And neither did I.

    You’ve immersed yourself in her words — which are abstract ideas and mental images — and in so doing you’ve made these abstract ideas into concreted things. You’ve them integrated them into your pre-existiting body of knowledge — your already learned and developed context — and in combing these thing altogether, you’ve created something that has never quite existed before: because nobody has anybody else’s same context-of-knowledge or same life experiences.

    May Swenson’s words have taken a new form within you, before you, before your very eyes. 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. I’ve grown my mind too.

    We’ve significantly grown our minds, and we’ve done so in less than thirty minutes.

    That is the power of learning literature by heart.

    That is my spectacular 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 by heart, verbatim, even if you don’t forever after 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 and breathe, like grooves in a record bearing beautiful melodies.

    Those living grooves will always remain. The more you practice reading in this way, the deeper and more alive those living grooves will become.

    So please don’t let anyone ever try to 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.

    “Thinking is linked-up with language and vice-versa. Concepts are embodied in words. Language is a tool of thinking,” wrote Ludwig von Mises, in his masterpiece Human Action.

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

    Because memory, never forget, is both a 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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