Want to learn poems by heart, but finding it difficult?
Wish you could recite your own poetry at readings?
Just want to bring more poetry into your life?
Learning poems by heart is a rewarding practice for poets, poetry lovers, and anyone who needs a break from being busy.
I know over 30 poems by heart. I use specific techniques to memorize poems so that I can keep my favorites with me always.
I’ll show you my best tricks for making the process faster and easier with any poem, plus how to choose a poem that will make it even easier.
Learn Poems by Heart – Top Tips
Already have a poem you want to learn by heart? Try these tips to make your process go easier and faster.
Mindset for Memory
- Learn the poem with your whole body. Rehearse.
- The goal is for your body to know the poem, the way your body knows how to drive a car.
- The more extra information you include, the less likely you will forget.
Best Tip That Requires No Extra Work
Learn from the end. Start with the last line and work backwards. Normally people start from the beginning, but that means that as you get deeper into the poem, you get less confident. If you learn from the end, each line reinforces the previous line.
Other Methods & Tips
- Interpret the poem. Decide how you will recite it to convey the meaning you experience. Read it out loud and make these decisions.
- Use multiple learning styles. More is better! Examples:
- Kinesthetic: Add meaningful gestures and rehearse with them.
- Auditory: “Sing along” with a spoken recording of the poem. Or find a melody that fits. (You can make one up.)
- Visual: write the poem by hand on paper in multiple colors.
- Use an order you already know. For example, if you’re writing the poem in multiple colors, use rainbow order.
- Imagine vivid images, the more ridiculous the better. Link each piece of the poem to an image.
- Use your mind palace. Spatial memory is very strong in humans. Link each piece of the poem to a location; for example, walk through your home in your mind’s eye, and link each line to a place in your home.
Choose a Poem to Learn by Heart
How do you choose a good poem to learn by heart?
Learning poems by heart is fun and rewarding.
But I see a lot of people give up because they start with a poem that’s too hard.
Often people want to start with a poem by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins. These are wonderful poems, but they are in free verse, which is very hard to learn by heart, especially when you’re starting out.
If you want to build your skill at learning poems by heart, start with something easier.
These tips will help you find a great poem to start with.
Once you’ve learned a few easy poems by heart, your skill will be better, and you can try a harder one.
Set Yourself Up for Success
To make learning your poem as easy as possible, choose a poem that
- is short
- has a clear, regular rhythm
- is easy to understand, or you are willing to work at understanding it
- (Important) Choose a poem you like!
Examples by Difficulty Level
Easy—Best for Beginners
- Limericks—This is my top recommendation for beginners.
- Couplets—Stand-alone or from a longer work. Alexander Pope is a favorite.
- Very short rhyming poems such as nursery rhymes
Medium—Try These Next
Hard—Learn Easier Poems First to Build Your Skill
- Blank verse—has strong rhythm but not rhyme
- Free verse—No regular rhythm or rhyme. Mary Oliver is a favorite.
- Long poems
Use these tips to get started learning poems by heart, or to take your practice to the next level. I hope to hear you recite soon!
Keiko O’Leary helps writers see the big picture while taking meaningful action today. She is the author of Your Writing Matters: 34 Quick Essays to Get Unstuck and Stay Inspired. A leader in the Prolific Writers Life community, Keiko hosts work sessions, teaches workshops, and participates as a member of the advisory board. She is also an editor and publisher at Thinking Ink Press, and is Cupertino Poet Laureate for 2023 & 2024. Join Keiko at her events on Prolific Writers Life.