Strengthen Your Memory With Poetry

Looking for new ways to boost your brain? Try putting poetry into motion.

A middle aged white woman with gray hair and a tattoo on her arm sits in a couch reading a book

Medically reviewed in January 2023

Updated on January 19, 2023

How do I remember thee? Let me count the ways… 

You may know that exercising your brain can help keep it healthy, whether it’s doing puzzles, playing chess, or getting regular physical activity. Another great way to work your mental muscle is to read, write, and memorize poetry. Studies show that committing your favorite verses to memory can not only help preserve mental function but may also improve your recall abilities.

Poetry and the brain

Memorizing a poem—especially if you try to understand and find a deeper meaning in it—can help foster good learning habits and may stimulate areas of the brain that manage memory.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK undertook The Poetry and Memory Project in 2014 to understand the value of memorizing poetry. The 470 participants in the study said that memorizing poetry not only helped them understand and appreciate the art form better, but 40 percent also noted that it gave them confidence to remember other things.

The researchers, in their 2017 report on the project, said having a “productive, fruitful relationship with a poem” is more likely to help someone learn it by heart than simply trying to memorize it by rote. In other words, if you’re looking to commit something important to memory for long-term retention, it may help to work on understanding the deeper dimensions of the material. Training yourself to memorize in this way may help you remember things in various areas of your life.

A small study out of the University of Liverpool found that reading Shakespeare stimulated positive brain activity among participants. This was observed especially where there were functional shifts in the words at play. Such shifts occur when a word changes its grammatical function, such as when the noun “water” becomes the verb “to water.” These moments of wordplay tease the brain and cause it to respond to language like it might to a jigsaw puzzle, according to researchers.   

How to memorize a poem

If you’d like to try exercising your memory, start with poetry that interests, engages, and ideally challenges you. Perhaps you’re drawn to the verse of Robert Frost or Maya Angelou, or you may prefer pieces composed by your children or grandchildren. 

Try these tactics suggested by Mensa for committing those verses to memory:

  1. On your first time through the poem, read it slowly and out loud, considering what the author is trying to communicate. Discerning meaning helps to make memories. 
  2. Next, quickly read the poem several times, feeling the rhythm and cadence of the language. This additional experience of the poem will provide more layers of meaning and memory. 
  3. Copy the poem down just as it was originally written. Many people find that the act of writing helps them commit things to memory.
  4. Read the poem out loud again. Auditory learners (those who learn best by listening) may benefit from recording a reading of the poem and playing it back frequently.
  5. Start by memorizing one line, repeating it to yourself three times. Look away from the paper, wait briefly and try to repeat the line.
  6. When you feel confident reciting that line from memory, move on to the rest. Practice reciting two memorized sections together before moving on to a new section.
  7. Get some sleep. After you’ve worked on memorizing your poem, getting a good night’s sleep may help enhance your memory of it.
  8. Continue to practice the poem, writing it out and reciting it when you have a free moment at work or at home and to other people who will listen.

Eventually, give your poetic exercise a twist by fashioning your own odes. To get the ideas flowing, try opening a book, pointing to a word at random, and using it in a verse. Or take a favorite poem and alter it to incorporate your own topic and meaning. 

Keeping your mind sharp can take a bit of creative effort. But who knows? You may pen the next classic rhyme. Either way, your brain will likely be better for it.

Article sources open article sources

University of Cambridge. The Poetry and Memory Project. Project Report. March 2017.
A Year of Living Poetically. MENSA for Kids. Page accessed December 12, 2022.
Zeman, A., Milton, F., Smith, A., Rylance, R. By Heart An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose. Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2013;20:132-158.
Thierry G, Martin CD, Gonzalez-Diaz V, Rezaie R, Roberts N, Davis PM. Event-related potential characterisation of the Shakespearean functional shift in narrative sentence structure. Neuroimage. 2008;40(2):923-931.

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