Why You Shouldn't Use Random Images To Memorize Poems (in progress)

Hi All,

I am by no means an expert, but as a student (no one is a scholar) of poetry, I thought I would offer a different perspective regarding its memorization. Please disregard this post if you only wish to memorize poems for competitive purposes, as I don’t think my opinion will be helpful.

TDLR: Try to use memorization as a way to understand the poem, rather than inventing wild images to recall individual lines or words. I have also found you can do it twice. First with images outside the text which you overwrite with images from the text as your understanding of the poem grows through recitation (ask if you’d like an example! I can use Tennyson’s The Eagle, which is only 6 lines!)

Slightly longer version, example below:

Why not use all of a poem’s own elements to construct the images in your memory palace, even going so far as fusing (if you can scan) the metrical or rhythmical structure of the poem with the pace of your journey? The goal here is not simply to memorize the poem, but to internalize it. You will be simultaneously memorizing and interpreting, or should I say, understanding the poem. Memorizing the poem in this way will allow you to see things the way the poet saw them, and thereby gain something that a passive reading could never provide. Poetry is an imaginary vocabulary set to music, it’s office, as the late John Hollander wrote, was to “teach old forms [and images] to dance.” One could say the dance is the meaning of the poem in every possible sense of the word (literal, figurative, rhetorical, performative, grammatical etc.). In this way, you not only memorize the text, but also the imaginary vocabulary that the text is working with. Every poem, in a very real sense, has its own idiolect and iconography. Why not kill two birds with one stone? Use the poem’s own materials in your memory palace and you not only learn its language but also map the imaginary space in which the poem truly lives.

An Example.
I memorized this poem in 15 minutes using this technique, so I think it could be refined for increased speed, accuracy, and comprehension. It may seem like a story method, but I used the techniques for creating images (very specific and detailed in my mind). I’m using loci as actual places and as they are called here, as individual images.

For those interested here is a stanza as an example:

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones, he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers, as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
(At Melville’s Tomb, 1-4, Hart Crane)

Okay, let’s take the first line and a half since it is almost a complete thought.

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones

I imagine at the entrance to my apartment a scene of a man (myself somehow also) looking down from a clean grey ledge, the sound of the waves below roars, the wind blowing his hair, the sand and its granular texture (even the way we imagine the feeling of its texture at a distance in anticipation of touching it), above is the blue sky, so blue it is almost grey (at this point). For, “wide from this ledge” I imagine, standing on the ledge a cinematic elongation of the ledge laterally as if done quickly, but steadily almost like those videogame cutscenes. The change of perspective follows the rhythm which (with an enjambment or continuous line) places the emphasis on a movement out of the line. The trick is to follow the voice, it will show you how it is done. The waves, as I watch from this almost horizontal angle, leap up and crash down upon this bundle of bones, tragically rolling onto the shore. I even zoom in to see their distal tips clattering against one another. Like with the sand and the water’s anticipated textures, I imagine anticipating what the sound would be if I could hear them rolling together, clanging like dice. (I didn’t need an image for dice or drowned because the rhythm itself encodes for me these words, or maybe because I just know that the poet sees the movement of the bones, themselves being drowned by the wave, as dicelike under the wave’s influence which also gets us asking, among other things, why he might use a figure of gambling, chance, consequence, as well as the images of its roll in air. Hint: he sees the natural world the same way Blake did…)


…he saw bequeath
An embassy.

Here, I have just realized, I didn’t use any mnemonic device, for me the rhythm is strong enough to carry me. But let’s try to imagine together a separate scene. Remember that these scenes should be immersive, and after a couple of tries, you’ll find it won’t take long to walk into these little cinematic worlds. The poet, in using the word embassy, is playing on at least a double meaning of message. A king sends an embassy to deliver a message from his kingdom to another and that message is composed of many officials (dead or alive). We understand that the sea bequeaths to the shore the bones of her castaways (the fate of those sailors on Melville’s Pequod). Bequeath, comes from the Old English, meaning “to speak” and Crane, as a Whitmanian poet, often associates the sea’s ‘word’ with death. We might also remember that a testament is legally required for any bequeathal and so there is the triple play on embassy, speech, and bearing witness (the narrator does all three). Okay, so while most of this interpretative work is unnecessary, you can choose on of these many aspects (or others) to construct this scene and the rest will be implied. I envision a legion of bones on the shore in this scene (placed a little further down the hall). The sea regurgitates them, you see bones stick out of the sand, worried by the waves, the loud hum of the wave echoes, like a word, and atop some distal joints, pointed straight out of the ground, you see some clothing that looks a bit like diplomatic flags, or the flags of some soldier’s fallen. In my scene I zoom in on these flags, which with the echo, an embassy.

ok, final part of the stanza!

Their numbers, as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured

There is a little knook in the hallway and here I enter the world of the poem again. A new scene. The man is watching again, only this time he is a little more specific, wind blows his hair, and he is watching intently. For this scene, I cheated a bit without realizing it, and had numbers engraved on the bones which crashed into the shore throwing up sandclouds in which they disappear. I imagined the sandclouds their grainy texture made evident by the light, but they seem somehow as dusty as those clouds you make when you blow a table clean. The action of the bones themselves being thrown down violently (as if Bergman or Tarkovsky could film it) seem to do so with a neurotic violence, the angle by which I zoom in makes them come down from above, and so they seem almost themselves agents of the sea’s violence, throwing up sand, losing themselves. Here the fatal error lies in how I represented numbers (which signifies at least the mathematical symbol, a group of men in battle, and so much more).

I’ve kept my example and my images rather large and general. You don’t have to. I find it easy to take one line, some times two, and encode them into a single scene. Especially for short poems. You can take every individual word (but I would encourage you to try to follow the speaker’s rhythm in order to remember connectors). My grandfather for example, even now when he is quite ill, remembers verbatim a line of Emily Dickinson (from 6 years ago) which was encoded using a single image, “the Brain is wider than the sky.” I would appreciate any feedback. I’m also no master of memory techniques and only recently started using them again. One trick I have found is to use an inner camera which changes perspective as necessary. This often creates intimacy with the images, which I lavish with detail. This never takes me very long, but perhaps because I like what I am memorizing and on some very basic level I understand it. Understanding is the key, the technique is the vehicle. It could be done quickly, but it requires you to be a reader and a memorizer at the same time.


This is a very quality post, thanks for sharing your insights! I agree and it is often mentioned on this forum that understanding is vital to really internalizing new information. Keep up the good work.

Thanks for reading! I only hope it helped. I will be devoting more time to memory techniques soon, so, hopefully, I can think through this and other methods in more detail.

I was settling in to try memory techniques for the first time–I’m using Hopkins’ “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” as my first text, and I came across this same problem: If the poet is worth her or his salt, the images are already there, and the movement of the poem is the progression of loci. So isn’t a memory journey/palace simply a layering of one set of images over a set that’s perfectly adequate (or more than perfectly adequate, since a good poem should be worth knowing as a thing in-and-of-itself)…

And then I found this post. Thanks for your thoughts, I’ll see how I can apply them.

(I’ll just throw in this one observation: for the purposes of memorization, poetry may differ from standard text because the fabulous images are pre-supplied, and the connecting tissue of the other words are what will be difficult to remember–of course, as you pointed out, none of this matters if you’re just doing it so that you can recite it rote.)


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As an example, the line “in gay-gangs they throng; they glitter in marches” from the poem I chose suggests an outrageous and memorable set of modern images, but those images have nothing to do with the original meaning of the poem. I might remember the words, but I’d miss the point!

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It is interesting that you say that. All good poets know that poetry is painting with words. Ezra Pound describes poetry as images, and it not coincidental that he headed a famous movement called imagism. So, maybe it is a good recommendation for you guys to memorize imagist poets’ poems, so that you may find verbal constructions of images easier to memorize.

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…you can still see WCW and Ezra Pound’s influence on Ginsberg:

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

I’d stay away from Dada though with that argument :wink:


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This one is actually easier to memorize in its original Chinese form:

The story of Mr.Shi eating lions

There was a poet named Mr.Shi who lives in a stone den. He liked to eat lions, and vowed to eat ten lions. Therefore Mr. Shi would usually visit the market to look for lions. At 10 o’clock exactly ten lions just arrived at the market. At that very moment, Mr.Shi shot a few arrows from his bow and killed those ten lions. Mr. Shi then brought the ten dead lions back to his stone den. Because the den might be too wet to store the lions. So he ordered his servant to clean and dry the den. After the den was cleaned, Mr.Shi started to try to eat those ten lions. However, only until he was eating the lions he found out that those ten dead lions were actually ten stone lions. Would you try to explain what was happening?

…click the speaker button in the link below to hear it spoken in Chinese:


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Dear MJ,
I hope my post was helpful and I’m only sorry I haven’t got around to improving it’s content. You are exactly right. Why should we layer substandard images over those articulated by some of the greatest “imagists” (Jane Austen’s word) in human history? Also, I find such practices distract from the meaning of the poem, that is the work of poetry.

Wallace Stevens said it best in his essay The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words “A poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words.” What he means is that poetic utterances cannot be translated, their meaning exists only by virtue of their peculiar use and arrangement of words on many levels. No amount of paraphrase will substitute for the subtext of Hopkin’s barreling rhythms or Hart Crane’s soaring rhetoric. Memorizing poetry I think should be closer to the art of poetry itself, we must ask ourselves to enter into the spirit of the artist or at least, in memorizing, creatively reinterpret the poem iconographically such that it does justice to the poem and our understanding of it.

More later! And hopefully a couple of edits!

A lot of interesting work has been done on diachronic rhetoric, that is how poems and their language seem to remember in very odd ways prior poems. Harold Bloom has written some inspired work on the subject. Robert Burchfield, John Hollander and Peter De Bolla are worth reading also.

Bringing this full circle, we could learn a thing or two about memorization from the way poems seem to remember one another. When John Milton in Lycidas recalls Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion he does so in a way that attempts to make something out of the material that he wished to commit to memory: he wrote those verses.

I will have more to say about this soon.

The final bit there brings to mind a quote from Henri Bergson “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

I wish I’d seen this post before memorising Shakespeare’s sonnets.

However, I think for me it worked the opposite way. By creating images for words, half a line or a whole line and getting this into short to medium term memory has helped me understand the poem. I’m not sure your method would work with Elizabethan English but I’ll give it a go.

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Why not make an allegorization of the poem’s content then? You can construct your own images but the constraint being that they must be somehow an allegorical interpretation of the poetic content you seek to memorize, then not only do you deepen your understanding, you also create images which are not restricted to those made possible by the text. Just a thought. Good Luck!!! Some of the later sonnets are more dramatic and so may be more memorable.

sorry for the grammar, thumbing on the phone!