The Memory Project

Due to the global pandemic we are suspending the memory project this semester. I hope that you will memorize three poems after you complete the class!

During the semester you will memorize three poems. On the day of your choice, you will recite the poem to the class. We will share ideas and strategies for learning by heart––a skill most all of you most likely already know having committed countless song lyrics to memory. I will join you in this activity.


“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves.”

-Plato, Phaedrus


Memory is a kind

            Of accomplishment

                                    A sort of renewal


            An initiation, since the spaces it opens are new


                                    Inhabited by hordes

                                                Heretofor unrealized

            Of new kinds—

                                    Since their movements

                                    Are towards new objectives (78)

-William Carlos Williams, Paterson


We speak of memorizing as getting something “by heart,” which really means “by head.” But getting a poem or prose passage truly “by heart” implies getting it by mind and memory and understanding and delight. There are many ways to memorize texts of any kind, but for verse, reading lines aloud and listening to yourself as you recite them is crucial. It is partly like memorizing a song whose tune is that of the words themselves. The kind of ordering or sequence or logical progression of parts of the poem—lines, groups of lines, stanzas, sections, verse paragraphs—will figure strongly in the way we hold it together in memory.

To hear a poem read aloud by someone who understands it, and who wishes to share that understanding with someone else, can be a crucial experience, instructing the silently reading eye ever thereafter to hear what it is seeing. Better yet is reading aloud that way oneself.

-John Hollander


Consider the following questions posed by the Poetry and Memory Project at Cambridge University.

  • To what extent do these embodied ways of knowing offer distinctive forms of understanding and appreciating a poem?
  • What critical perspectives are useful for developing practices of memorisation and performance. How might we theorise these processes, and what terms should we use?
  • Can the interpretation of a poem in performance be seen as a form of critical interpretation, and how does that relate to textual criticism? Are there other ways of positioning recitation and performance?
  • How can the evaluation of poetry performance be approached?
  • What is the value of memorisation and recitation, psychologically, culturally and historically?
  • What is the meaning and significance of these modes of engaging with poetry within our current culture?
  • Where can a poem be said to exist?

In brief, at the end of the semester, you will have learned three poems by heart. If you are interested, you can post a Vimeo or Youtube video of you reading your poem on your course blog!

Memory Project Fall 2018


I’m Nobody! Who are You? by Emily Dickinson


There Was a Little Girl by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe


We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks

8 Count by Charles Bukowski


Twilight by Walt Whitman

They shut me up in Prose by Emily Dickinson

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law by Adrienne Rich


Oh Me! Oh Life! by Walt Whitman

August by Mary Oliver


I Dwell in Possibility by Emily Dickinson

Rosa by Rita Dove


Study Nature by Gertrude Stein


Two Butterflies went out at Noon by Emily Dickinson

The City and the Sea, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow