Memorize Poetry: Toward the Love and Mastery of Language

In just a few minutes a day, and for almost no money, you can do one simple thing to provide your kids with an extraordinary home education: memorize poetry. Memory is a muscle that you strengthen with use, and there are so many possibilities for memory work that you may feel overwhelmed. We focus most of our memory efforts on learning Scripture and poetry by heart. Every Scripture verse your kids memorize bears within it, by the power of God, the possibility of a lifetime of fruit. I think memorizing poetry is one of the next best choices you can make. Poetry will form your kids into deep thinkers and excellent communicators.  It promises multiple benefits: developing powers of language, expression, and aesthetic appreciation in your kids. Poetry promises hours of enjoyment as well.

Choosing what to memorize

You can have your kids memorize items from almost any field of study. They can memorize the digits of Pi and the names of geometric shapes. Or try tackling the Kings of England in chronological order or strings of dates in history. How about the periodic table of the elements? Your kids can spend hours chanting verb conjugations and noun declensions.

Each of those memory tasks has the ability to strengthen the memory as a muscle. But so does memorizing a deck of cards in whatever order they were shuffled.

So next we rationalize that as we memorize facts we gain a base of knowledge on which we build  as we study each subject in depth. Our children could develop a wide base of boring facts they have rotely committed to memory.

It’s inescapable; children must memorize dull facts. Your kids will never make any real progress in math if they cannot rattle off math facts without thinking. But don’t stop there.

Learning should be a delight. Memorize words of delight: Scripture and poetry. The results may be less quantifiable but far more profound.

Memorize poetry

Poetry is an ancient medium. Think of the Psalms or Homer’s epic poems. Men have loved poetry for centuries, and they memorized it. Children used to routinely memorize poetry in school. Have you read Ann of Green Gables? Ann’s world is infused with poetry.

As another example, consider Winston Churchill. Churchill once won a prize for reciting 1200 lines of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. He was never considered a brilliant student. After attending military college, he was stationed in India. While he was there his mother sent him books, and he never stopped reading. Churchill became a master of the English language. When  Churchill led Great Britain through World War II his oratory power was unparalleled. His speeches were written out like stanzas of a poem. He placed great emphasis on choosing the best word and when needed he coined his own expressions. The phrase “iron curtain” came from a mind fed on a steady diet of the greatest expressions in English.

However, the world changed and memorizing poetry is no longer fashionable. But whether it’s fashionable or not, there are profound benefits to memorizing poetry.

Benefits of memorizing poetry

The benefits of memorizing poetry cannot be easily quantified. We memorize the “100 Most Important Dates in History” and thus know 100 facts. However, poetry leads us into the deep waters of language and expression and  when our children wade in they become better readers, writers, and thinkers. How can you objectively measure that?

Our world is a literary desert, and poetry the oasis. Memorizing poetry stores complex syntax – that’s grammatical structures – in our children’s brains. Poetry also introduces our kids to sophisticated language; it has the power to give our kids an enormous vocabulary. Then poetry takes the grammar and the vocabulary, and unlike a workbook, transforms them into expressions of Beauty.

Reading poetry

Could you just read poetry and get the same benefits? There’s no real way to definitively quantify how many benefits your kids will receive from reading poetry. But my guess is the benefits are multiplied when you memorize it. Here’s why:

  • your memory, the “muscle”, is strengthened
  • you notice greater detail
  • you take it with you wherever you go
  • it becomes a part of you
  • you can remember it years  later

(As you read that list, did you notice that all of those reasons also apply to Scripture memory?)

So read poetry, and enjoy a lot of it. Then pick a few favorites to commit to memory and reap the benefits.

If you’re using a curriculum that has a technical approach to poetry, and as you read this you can only think about how much you hate poetry, you should try a new approach. I know this feeling well! Sometimes analyzing meaning, studying the life of a poet and reading that into the poem, and finding the meter sap the joy out of the process. Step back. Rediscover joy and delight. Then if you really feel the technical aspects are also important, slowly add them back in later. For now keep it simple: read and memorize great poems.

Choosing poems to memorize

We kept this really simple. We read a few poems a day. After we had read a handful, we picked a favorite to memorize. I usually needed to set a deadline: we read poems all week, made a choice on Friday, and began memorizing on Monday. Otherwise, the kids would have me read and read supposedly waiting for a “favorite.” But in reality that was a delaying tactic so that they didn’t have to begin the harder work of memorizing. Of course, as the mother, you can just select a poem you think the kids will benefit from and have them get to work on it.

Hint: Poems that rhyme are easier to memorize. Occasionally, I read modern poems that I enjoy. However, most modern poetry doesn’t rhyme. The strong meter and rhyming scheme of older poetry makes the poems far more memorable. I don’t worry if the Truly Erudite scorn the sing-song cadence in which my kids recite poetry. Our aim is not to impress. Our aim is to foster a delight in poetry. If your kids love a sing-song cadence, embrace it.

Hint: Pick short poems as you begin and build up to longer ones. One of our earliest choices was Tennyson’s The Eagle. Six lines. Only one unfamiliar word. Still, amazing! The kids would recite it in majestic voices and swoop around the living room when they fell like thunderbolts. We built up our memories then tackled longer poems like William Blake’s The Tyger.

I’ve seen two plans for introducing poetry to children (and adults – if you’re educating yourself as you homeschool): focusing on one poet at a time or reading selections of the “best” poems. We’ve done it both ways and I can’t say I have a preferred method.

Focus on one poet at a time

If you use Ambleside Online, you are familiar with their Poetry Schedule. You can use it as they suggest or pick any three poets you enjoy and read their works that year.

One advantage of this method is that you develop a familiarity with a poet’s style. You may not remember a precise poem, but you may hear something and say, “That sounds like…”

The disadvantage is that some poems are better than others. Not every poem is a poet’s greatest work. Homeschool moms have a limited time frame and using time wisely requires us to focus our energies on the best.

A Child’s Garden of Verses

We worked through Robert Louis Stevenson in this way. His poems picture childhood and the world of imagination perfectly! The poem A Good Play that begins, “We built a ship upon the stairs/ All made of the back bedroom chairs,” describes how I spent hours of my childhood. Only I was building doll houses rather than sailing ships.

And I think Tasha Tudor’s artwork is a wonderful complement. The children are a little old fashioned, as are the poems, but all busily engaged in the real work of childhood: play and imagination. I adore this version of A Child’s Garden of Verses, and consider it a book worth splurging on and buying a hardcover copy. Of course, I love anything by Tasha Tudor. Be careful if you choose another edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses. Sometimes editors include poems by other poets. I think that’s fine, but they should give it a different title.

My kids and I memorized The Swing. I took my five year old to the park and was pushing her on the swing when she started reciting the poem. There we were, on a sunny green day, with cattle in a pasture across the street. Two of us reciting, “How do you like to go up in a swing,/ Up in the air so blue?/ Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing/ Ever a child can do!” Memorize poetry and you can take it to the park with you, and form memories that will make you cry for joy a decade later.

I had to call my mom to help me title this blog post. Knowing only that I was writing about poetry, she told me she still remembers poems she memorized from her first book of poetry, A Child’s Garden of Verses! She remembers The Swing and My Shadow. She still has her copy, with 1950’s illustrations, and held together with tape. The poems your kids memorize may stay with them for a lifetime.

Use a poetry anthology

If you use an anthology, an editor has combed through and selected what are generally considered the top poets and their best poems. You and your kids will have a broad exposure to poetry. Then if you find a favorite poet, you narrow your focus from there.

This is the approach Mortimer Adler recommends in How to Read a Book. In “Appendix A” Adler and Van Doren write, “But we would recommend starting with a good anthology of poetry rather than with the collected works of a single author. Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury and The Oxford Book of English Verse are excellent places to start.”

If you read Ambleside Online carefully you will notice they also recommend the The Oxford Book of English Verse in later years. They take both approaches.

If you are unfamiliar with poetry and find an enormous anthology daunting, we have also enjoyed 100 Best Loved Poems. It’s super affordable, gets you right to the good stuff, and 100 poems should be enough to get you started.

Children’s anthologies

A Child’s Book of Poems is a collection of 200 poems with charming, modern feeling illustrations. Or if you don’t mind an anthology without pictures try The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse.

Of course, if you don’t mind poems without pictures you can find plenty of poems online for free. Reading and memorizing poetry doesn’t have to cost you a penny!

How to memorize a poem

Now for the really easy part! Once you’ve picked a poem to memorize, read and re-read it. Have your kids read it. Soon you’ll all be able to say some of it from memory. Once you have some of it memorized, recite it from memory and correct each other when you make a mistake. Memory work is nothing more than a lot of repetition.

I would often have the kids write out poems for copywork. The process of writing aids in memory. My kids who loved to draw would illustrate those pages.

Mensa for Kids has some simple tips for memorizing poems. Many of these tips work for Scripture memory too!

I don’t worry about teaching my kids too much about meter in poetry. We once worked through a resource that supposedly taught us to identify meter. We didn’t learn much! I’ll probably work through it again with my younger two, just to expose them to it. But I don’t worry much about it. My true aim is to help my kids develop a love for poetry. If you can easily spot a trochaic or anapestic foot (yes, I looked those up!) then by all means share your knowledge with your kids. But anyone – knowledgeable or ignorant – can enjoy a good poem. Don’t let your ignorance stop you!

Pick up a book of poems

Pick up a book of poems, read it aloud to your kids. Make the book your friend. After you’re well acquainted, choose a poem to memorize and you’ll discover so much more. This is one more piece of an excellent education that every single one of us can do. It’s quick and it’s cheap. Poetry will fill your home with the language of delight.

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