How to Memorize Poetry, Plays, and Literature

How to Remember Poetry


Have you ever been told to memorize poetry, plays, and literature quotes from a book you studied in class? I remember being told to do it, but I couldn’t recall the reading selections. It was torturous. 

The strange thing about being told to memorize poetry, plays, and literature in class was that the teacher didn’t instruct us on how to do it. Perhaps the teacher told you to read it repeatedly until it sank in. Eventually, that might work. But it’s not the most effective strategy to memorize works verbatim. 

How to Memorize Written Work Verbatim

The most effective way to memorize poetry, plays, and literature combines two elements: setting up a memory journey and quickly re-reading the selection after we set up the journey. (Click here for more information about memory journeys.)

To practice this method, I have selected a piece many students encounter from Romeo and Juliet. This is from act two, scene two, when Juliet ponders Romeo’s family name:

“What’s Montague?
It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arms, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.”

Step One

We need to catalog keywords for each line and put them in order. So, let’s start by finding the words that will shape our journey: 

  1. Montague
  2. hand
  3. foot
  4. arms
  5. face
  6. Belonging to man
  7. name
  8. rose
  9. smell as sweet

I think memorizing the selection will be easy if we use these nine keywords and phrases.

Step Two

Start by mapping out your journey to a familiar route that you take. You can sketch out your path on paper if you need to. If not, you can create it in your head. All you need to do is ensure that you have a route planned with nine spots to hold new information.

Step Three

In the first spot, I put the actor Brian Dennehy, who played Lord Montague, in the Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo and Juliet. He represents Montague to me.

In the second spot, I come across a hand attached to a rope, leading me to the third spot, a foot, which is also connected to the rope. A couple of arms are attached in the fourth spot, and we find a face in the fifth. The rope continues to a penis anchored into the ground at our sixth spot, where the rope ends. I know it sounds weird to use a penis as an anchor, but it’s memorable and represents something “belonging to man” in this case. The rope is there to help us remember that each of these body parts is connected.

In the seventh spot, imagine the word “Name?” on a giant neon billboard. Under it, you might want a second neon sign also saying “Name.” Since the word name appears twice in the text, it might be helpful. 

Moving to the next place, see a flower. As you approach, it sprays out a sweet smell.

Step Four

Read through the text as quickly as possible, imagining the memory journey as you say the words.

Repeat it a couple of times. Afterward, try to recite the selection without looking.

Give yourself time between practice rounds and repeat the process until you have it down. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can memorize poetry, plays, and literature.

Also, if you find that you forget pieces, then add more keywords to put into your memory journey. As long as you keep the order straight, adding more to your journey will always help. As with any of these systems, if you find these images aren’t right for you, change them.

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