25. January 2024

Poetry and the importance of memory

Word poetry written on paper by typewriter

From a quirky new year’s resolution to revivifying an ancient art


Back on New Year’s Eve 2022, I made a new year’s resolution: to learn one poem by heart for each month of the coming year.

Apart from giving me an added sense of purpose for the new year, the poetry project also had a decidedly contrarian undercurrent that dovetailed neatly with my rebellious nature. The world has now become so completely reliant on ubiquitous access to the internet that we hardly bother committing things to memory anymore – I was going to swim against that tide!

Not only that: ChatGPT had just crashed into the collective consciousness. As soon as I got to grips with the new chatbot in town, I knew: one of the things this revolution is going to do is to further reduce humans’ need/propensity to turn their brains on. Why bother to think when a machine can do it for you?

A little kickback against AI

There’s nothing that I can do about the coming AI tsunami. Just like everyone else, I have to go with the flow and integrate the new tools and technologies into my private- and work life as best I can. But there’s nothing to say that I can’t indulge in a few retro intellectual pleasures in my spare time. Learning poetry by heart seemed so deliciously old-fashioned: I was immediately sold on the idea.

From suggestions garnered from friends and family on social media as well as a pool of my own favourite works, I put together a list of 12 poems and promptly drew the first one “out of the hat” for January: Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece “If-“.

I knew from the outset that committing these works to memory (especially the longer ones like “The Brook” by Tennyson or Bukowski’s irregular free verse) and reciting them perfectly when being tested would require sustained effort and discipline. But I looked forward to getting to know them intimately and in far greater detail than would ever be possible from a fleeting read-through in a book or online.

What I did not foresee was how profoundly this simple act of learning poetry by heart would move me and enrich my life, both practically and emotionally.

A practical tool

I’ve been a distance runner since the age of 14 and, for many years, I listened to music during longer training runs. However, wanting to take a bit more care of my hearing, I knocked that habit on the head about 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve used runs to let my thoughts percolate and circulate as they will. In fact, I’ve often come back from a run with the answer to a knotty question that I’ve been fretting over uselessly for days at my desk. Relax, run – and everything somehow becomes clear.

It’s a useful technique, but sometimes I felt like I’d prefer to structure and steer my running thoughts a bit more.

Poetry has been the perfect solution. Letting whatever piece I was currently learning run through my mind repeatedly while I ran my 5km, 8km, or 12km route after work felt like a constructive use of the time as well as a meaningful direction of my thoughts. With the poetry project, running has become a comprehensive workout for both body and mind.

Poems also proved an indispensable aid when trying to get my mind firmly over the matter of completing IML marches. These events count among my favourite hobbies, and I try and do a couple each year. The marches last 2-3 days; I generally go for the longer 30km or 40km routes on each day, walking between 60km and 120km in total. And believe me, at some point during that long walk, you need something to get your mind off your terminally aching feet. Reciting poems silently and steadily inside my head helps to nudge my brain away from “Ouch, Jesus, my feet hurt so badly I think I might be sick”, towards “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Poetry on public transport

Sport hasn’t been the only arena where I’ve felt the benefit of my new hobby. When I look around me on public transport to see what the other passengers are doing, very few of them are engaged in conversation. Even fewer have a physical book in their hands. Almost everyone is staring intently into their smartphone screens, even ignoring their friends to do so.

In 2024, empty minutes – in transit, waiting in line – aren’t an opportunity to look around and let your mind wander. It’s the time to rush back to suckle at the teat of Mother Internet. Authentic human interactions are increasingly being shunned in favour of staring into a cold, hard screen. No wonder loneliness and depression (not to mention aching necks and deteriorating eyesight) are on the rise.

It’s sad to see and I’m eager not to let myself be swept away by this unappealing new culture.  So, whether on the public transport on the way to go for a run, or in the queue at the supermarket, or waiting my turn to see the dentist – you might observe me sitting back and closing my eyes. Surrounded by people consuming chains of 15-second TikTok videos and casually killing their powers of concentration, I’m quietly enriching my mind with the poetry of masters.

So, you see – there have been several practical advantages to learning poetry by heart. Yet none of them really explained the profound effect it had on me, like I had somehow tapped into some deep current of energy that I had no idea was there. What was this wellspring I’d stumbled across, and how had the archaic act of memorisation enabled me to access it?

Hello, my name is Katharine and memory is my superpower

It wasn’t like I’d never thought about the role and nature of memory. Quite the contrary: comprehensive memorisation is something I’ve been doing all my life without even trying.

From my earliest childhood, I have been able to both entertain and scare the sh*t out of people by remembering the strangest things in glorious, unnecessary detail. My brain is, and has always been, a rapacious soaker-upper of any and all information, regardless of rhyme, reason, utility or relevance. And, once that information is stored in my head, it tends to stick around for a really, really long time. Ready to pop out at moments of varying usefulness to answer some random question – or make my company think I’m ripe for psychological help.

To illustrate just how sticky and weird my memory actually is, here is a non-exhaustive, completely random list of things I can reel off from memory without having to check:

  • The name of a children’s book I had in the 80s from my mum saying: “It was about a blue toy, maybe a rabbit” (answer: “Alpaca”)
  • My precise location and what I was looking at when I first heard “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston for the first time, aged six (answer: in a garden centre in Lancashire, a green rubber mould for making garden gnomes)
  • All the words of all the songs from Alanis Morissette’s debut album “Jagged Little Pill”
  • The exact year when my dad bought the ugly multicoloured Karrimor rucksack that he still has in the boot of his car and never lets us replace, “because it’s still OK” (answer: 1990)
  • Avicii’s real name (Tim Bergling)
  • Which DJ remixed Tori Amos’s song “Professional Widow” to produce THE classic house hit of the 90s (Armand van Helden – if that didn’t get you on the dancefloor, you had no business being there)
  • The names, appearances, temperaments, gait, even the ailments of the ponies at the riding school I used to go to as a kid
  • The names of all the parts of a saddle and bridle.

And that’s even before the number of songs from the 80s onwards that I can identify by just hearing a couple of seconds of the intro.

The nouns which tend to spring to mind when it comes to my powers of recall are: comprehensive. Eclectic. Freaky.

A blessing and a curse

Sometimes, I wish my memory wasn’t quite so strong. I wish that more bad memories or useless conversations I’ve had would get wiped from it and stop playing back to me on repeat, unbidden. Often, I pretend that I’ve forgotten something or can’t fully recall just to avoid freaking a conversation partner out. And it frustrates me to deal with people with weak memories who seem to forget information as soon as they’ve acquired it. I just can’t relate.

With such a vast internal mental archive, I admit that the inside of my head can be rather noisy and stressful. But I wouldn’t be without my crazy memory. It’s such a rich resource to be able to pull from at any given moment, entertaining in the extreme – not to mention an endless source of inspiration for writing. What is a writer, after all, without their memory?

The history of remembering

Naturally having a memory of such strength and granularity, I wasn’t sure I really needed to read a book about how to remember even more. But a week or so ago, I found myself picking up Joshua Foer’s 2011 bestseller “Moonwalking With Einstein”. The Other Half had read it several years ago and had thoroughly enjoyed it, telling me time and time again how I’d like it too. I finally gave in and opened it up.

I needn’t have worried. While the core storyline that carries the book (i.e. how the author manages to go from a person with average memory skills to winning the 2006 US Memory Championships) is interesting, it was Foer’s elaboration on the history of memory and remembering which caught my imagination and gave me fresh perspectives on the meaning and value of memory.

In particular, it never occurred to me until I read “Moonwalking With Einstein” how the role and importance of memory in education and society might have evolved over time. And therefore, how the level of esteem a strong memory would enjoy among the populace would wax and wane.

The changing status of memory

In times past, the definition of intelligence and erudition was tightly bound up with the strength of one’s memory. Before the age of ubiquitous internet, before the widespread ownership of books and literacy, before the invention of the printing press – hell, before the invention of writing – committing information to memory was the only way to preserve it. Your ability to discuss any given matter, or pass on crucial lessons to the next generation, was dependent on your ability to recall the correct information from memory – in full and in the correct order.

But with the advent and proliferation of ersatz-memories like written or digital documents, the need to stock and maintain one’s own mental hard drive eroded. The written word largely relieved human brains from the need to perform such extensive feats of recall.

Vast volumes of information now being stored on durable media outside of the human brain lead to a shift in the definition of intelligence. Being intelligent was no longer a case of simply having a strong powers of memory; it now meant the ability to sift through information available in written/electronic form and extract and analyse the parts pertinent to a given question.

Memory prowess – once the preserve of society’s biggest and most feted brains – has atrophied to a quirky sub-culture inhabited by the kind of off-beat mnemonists that populate the pages of Foer’s book. Fiercely competing with each other, but largely ignored by the world at large.

Detail from Alphonse Mucha's Slavic Epos Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria
Preserving the memories of the elders (detail from Part VI of Mucha’s Slavic Epos)

Poetry: the memory challenge par excellence

Reading “Moonwalking With Einstein”, it was rather gratifying to read that many mnemonists consider the memorisation of verse to be the hardest discipline of all. Even though the competitions they take part in entail memorising poems of much greater length than the ones I’ve picked up, I still felt smug. My little poetry project had thrown me into the deep end of the memory sport pool!

I was especially proud as I haven’t been applying any particular techniques during the memorisation process – just reciting the words to myself repeatedly over a number of weeks, adding further lines each time until I have absorbed it. If certain parts of the poem kept tripping me up, I’d try to pick out little markers or reminders in the text to keep me on track.

Which, I found out, is no different to how poems have been memorised for hundreds, even thousands of years.  In fact, the way that Homer’s epic poem Iliad has come to be written down after having been an oral work for generations reflects this need for speakers to find a “path” through the work. Unusual phrases such as “the rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea” are repeated throughout the poem. They are thought to have acted as signposts to jog the memory, especially for illiterate bards who had to rely solely on their memory when performing for an audience.

The poetry project: connecting with an art almost lost

By committing to my resolution, I feel like I am reaching far back in time to connect with a rich and deeply human oral tradition of storytelling and recital that has become a mere footnote in today’s fast-moving digital world where even thinking has become optional.

In the turbulence and the uncertainty of the AI revolution, my poetry project feels like a small flame of humanity which I’m doing my bit to keep alive.

So, I’m taking it into this new year with me. 12 months, 12 poems to learn. The work for January? “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.

Off we go again…


Related articles:

The Poetry Project – a really retro new year’s resolution

Why Bruno Schulz is the perfect author for our troubled times

41 books read in 2023 – here are the best of the bunch

My books of the year 2022


Photo credit: MichaelJBerlin on Adobe Stock