Memorizing Poetry, a lost art? Let’s talk about the benefits.

Memorizing Poetry, Beastly Verse by Joohee Yoon
Memorizing Poetry, The poem Eletelephony

I’m just back from Community Meeting at my children’s school, which is a short weekly gathering of all the children in grades PreK-3 (so, ages 4 through 8 or 9 years old) and their parents. Typically at Community Meetings we sing together or listen to presentations from various classes on their studies, but the theme of today’s meeting was poetry. Students were invited to choose, memorize, and a recite a poem to the school community, and it turned out to be a prompt that we really enjoyed as a family!

We spent the last week gathering up the books of poems we had, and reading through them in the evenings before bed to help my daughter choose a poem to memorize. When both of my kids broke out in uncontrollable laughter as I read Eletelephony by Laura E. Richards, I knew we had a winner! We used our time commuting back and forth to school to break the poem down and memorize individual lines, and before I knew it, she had the poem committed to heart. Even my two-year-old can now recite most of it! This morning there were some nerves in the moment, as you might expect from a 5-year-old speaking publicly from memory to a group of 150 or so people, but it was such a good growth opportunity for public speaking. And the poem went off without a hitch!

Memorizing Poetry, Looking at the poem Eletelephony
Memorizing Poetry, Prints in the book Beastly Verse

The director of the Primary Division at my children’s school shared an interesting New York Times article on the value of memorizing poetry, which historically was very common (before the invention of writing, it was the only way to possess a poem) but has mostly fallen out of favor in more recent times (why bother memorizing something when you can simply call it up on your phone at a moment’s notice?). It speaks about the value of diligent work and the benefits that come from challenging ourselves, and also of the way the repetition involved in memorizing draws you closer to words and their meaning, and to the broader world of literature and human experience. I’m eager to have my daughter select another poem for us to learn together, and I’ve really enjoyed the practice of reading poetry together.

What about you? Have you worked with your children to memorize poems, or memorized any as a family? Do you remember reciting poems from memory as a child? And finally, do share any poetry collections you’ve loved reading as a family…I’m hoping to do more of it!

Shannon x

PS: We really love the collection of poems in the above photos, all of which are about animals, both real and imagined. The design of the book is incredible, with such vivid and fantastical pages, some of which unfold to reveal even more riveting illustrations.


Comments (11)

November 19, 2019

In France it is very standard for children to learn one poem per week. It is an excellent mental exercise that carries over to so many different disciplines! Like it or not, there are so many “facts” that must be memorized, and learning poetry really helps facilitate all of that. Not to mention they have a great arsenal of poetry by the time they stop doing that in sixth grade…

Shannon in NYC
November 21, 2019

I love hearing that learning poetry is so commonplace in France, and also imagining the beautiful lines that must be swirling constantly in their heads by sixth grade! My daughter’s kindergarten class is reading/working on one poem or nursery rhyme a week this fall and she’s constantly sharing them with me. Amazing what these little minds can remember!

November 19, 2019

We’re going through a poetry phase at home. We try to give our children exposure to different types of writing and at the moment comics and poetry have made a reappearance. Some goodies:

– anything by Shel Silverstein is wonderful. ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends” is hilarious.
– “Hailstones and Halibut Bones” by Mary O’Neill a light-paced and addictive little book of poems about colours.
– “Now We Are Six” by A.A. Milne is such a classic and the poem “The End” was a perfect excuse to memorise a poem on the 6th birthday.
– for Spanish-speaking families, any poems and rhyming stories by Gloria Fuertes are funny, witty and magic (i.e. Christmas-inspired ones: “Las Tres Reinas Magas” and “El Camello Cojito”)

Shannon in NYC
November 21, 2019

Yes to Shel Silverstein! We have “Falling Up” on the coffee table right now and the kids are loving it. And thanks for reminding me about “Now We Are Six.” We have it but haven’t read it…will get it out today!

November 19, 2019

Great article, thank you. I’m in the US. My daughter goes to a Classical school and they memorize poems all through the year. They have 2 poetry evenings a year where the children recite them in front of the whole school and their families. Very beautiful.

Shannon in NYC
November 21, 2019

That sounds so lovely! How wonderful for the families to hear it all, and such an important opportunity for the brave students!

November 19, 2019

Dougla Florian is a wonderful children’s poet. His books are delightful.

Shannon in NYC
November 21, 2019

Thank you for the suggestion, Patricia! I just added Autumnblings to our reading list.

November 21, 2019

I appreciate this post and the article link- my children attend school in Italy, where memorising poetry and prose is still common practice (as the commenter in France mentioned, as often as once a week). Around the holidays they can be quite long (a page at least), and having not been educated here myself, I found the practice stressful and tedious (though my kids are stars at it, and it is amazing to see how quickly they can commit so many lines to memory).

In addition to those already mentioned, we are fans of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies (stirringly beautiful) and Spike Milligan (an absolute delight). And for Italian speakers, the legendary Gianni Rodari.

Shannon in NYC
November 21, 2019

Thank you so much for these suggestions, Carrie. I’ve purchased some of the Flower Fairy books in the past as part of birthday gifts (so sweet paired with the little felt fairies!) but oddly we don’t have any of them. Maybe a good stocking item Christmas! And off to look up Spike Millian, with whom I’m not familiar.

November 21, 2019

Thanks for this post . In our school in Ireland this is not common but after this post i think we are missing out ! I really like this idea of memorising poems – thanks for all the suggestions of poets – some fun poetry books will be a nice stocking filler / present to give and receive.

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