On Memorizing Poetry

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Connie Pan

Senior Contributor

Connie Pan is a writer and editor from Maui, Hawai‘i. She earned an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University. Her writing has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Carve, HelloGiggles, PRISM International, The Billfold, and elsewhere. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Instagram: @csnpan Twitter: @panlikepeter

Memorizing poetry has lived on my mental to-do list for years. Other than reciting part of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for a high school English class, I memorized Richard Siken’s “Scheherazade” for a graduate poetry workshop. Besides navigating my dislike of public speaking, I enjoyed these assignments. Given our present, I welcome this new hobby to momentarily comfort and distract me.

Crush by Richard Siken Cover

As an aspiring poet, Siken’s debut collection, Crush, cemented my dedication to the genre. In a chain restaurant, I, while waiting to hear from MFA programs, hid the compact title behind my server book in my apron pocket and convinced coworkers to read my dog-eared copy. My excitement brought me a lot of That’s pretty and You really love this stuff.

Months later, in grad school, my eyes focused on beige ceiling tiles, I recited Crush’s opening poem. That feels so long ago now, but I test myself. After one glance, there it is, swimming under my skin, flowing out of my mouth. Somehow, it stuck. In awe of the words that have traveled from there to here with me, I want more poems as companions.

Ordinary Beast cover

During the pandemic, I decide to use the minutes roping soap on and through my fingers to memorize poetry. I, lover of love and love poems, copy “Object Permanence” from Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast onto scrap paper. On my bathroom mirror, I tape it left of my sightline. While washing dishes, discovering a line’s cadence brings joy. Walking room from room, hearing the words’ heartbeats, space breathing, uplifts me. By focusing on couplet by couplet, my memory succeeds.

As weeks spent inside become months, writers who memorize poetry make cameos in my life. Each feels like a serendipitous affirmation from the universe. On VS, a podcast hosted by Franny Choi and Danez Smith from the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness, Paige Lewis speaks to memorizing poetry. The author of Space Struck likes to have poems ready in the moment to share with others, to support a thought, to keep them company in post office lines.

Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers Jake Skeets cover

In “Shadows and Story: Talking with Jake Skeets” by Kathy Fagan from The Rumpus, Skeets, author of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, credits the Institute of American Indian Arts with teaching him to hike with his poems. At home, the poet practices this technique, reciting poetry to the land: “From this, I simply learned how to listen to the poems. I learned my poems were not stuck in their form. They moved, they danced, and they sometimes danced off the page.”

While sheltering in place, I notice—during the tiny windows of time I spend walking my dog—that nature gifts me lines of poetry. On these strolls, I don’t carry a pen, paper, or my phone, so I repeat the string of words until I reach home. Sometimes I lose them. Sometimes I don’t.

eye level jenny xie cover

Once I recite Sealey’s infamous poem multiple times, “Birth” by Louise Erdrich from Baptism of Desire, which I first read in Salt Lake City, Utah, resurfaces in an email newsletter. After a prose poem keeps eluding me, I memorize Erdrich’s quintain quickly then tape “Inwardly” by Jenny Xie from Eye Level to my mirror. Gazing at the constellation of poems becomes instinctive.

If committing poetry to memory interests you, too, I have collected 13 poems for you to befriend, recite to flowers, and whisper into the night:

So, what poems do you carry with you? What new ones will you learn by heart?