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How to memorize a poem Add to ...

The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

“I’m not sure I get the point of this,” my boyfriend informed me as I rattled off the first 50 lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock for the 10th time on the long drive north over the holiday weekend.

By “this” he meant my latest self-improvement challenge – to memorize a poem. (For the record, he is the furthest thing from a Philistine – when I first mentioned Prufrock he stunned me by reciting the beginning passages.) And it’s true – the benefits of committing verse to memory outside a classroom are not entirely self-evident.

Memorization in general is a dying art form – why would anyone waste time on it when just about any text (including the collected works of T.S. Eliot) is as close as your nearest wi-fi connection? The memorization of poetry – cause for bragging rights back in the parlour era – is now all but unheard of, at least in North America (memorizing is still a popular learning tool in China and various other Tiger Mom-type nations).

I was drawn to the challenge for a few reasons, the first being, can I do it? When I e-mailed the poem to my editor for approval, her response was, “That’s really long.” I chose Eliot’s beautiful, meandering monologue because I had always liked the title and the line about “mornings, evenings, afternoons” and measuring out a life in coffee spoons.

And also because I am a glutton for punishment: 131 lines, varying structure, irregular rhyme scheme and cryptic story line. Paradise Lost may be the Everest of poetry memorization, but this was at least a Matterhorn.

I wasn’t alone in my quest. On a blog called 43 things, essentially an online, interactive bucket list, 34 people have listed memorizing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock among the tasks they want to accomplish. A post on the message board reads: “There’s nothing like quoting a line from this masterpiece and having someone else finish it.” I imagine it feels sort of like a secret handshake.

For memorizing tips, I turned to the experts. Josh Cohen, founder of mnemotechnics.org, suggested I try creating a memory palace, which involves taking a mental walk through your house and “depositing” various parts of the poem, or whatever you’re trying to memorize, in different locations (living room, kitchen sink, bed, bathroom), that way when you do the same mental walk later, the memories will be waiting. This technique (known technically as the loci method) is espoused by many of the world’s reigning memory champs, but when I tried it, I had trouble focusing on the poem and my mental walk at the same time.

I spoke with Angela Troyer of the Centre for Brain Fitness at Baycrest in Toronto, who suggested a less complicated method called spaced retrieval – read a line and then repeat it from memory. Wait 10 seconds and repeat it again, wait 30 seconds and then repeat again, and so on.

She also recommended cue removal, in which you read the poem over and over again, covering up a few more words or lines each time. I found both of these techniques useful, though in the end, nothing was as effective as the old standby of writing the poem out over (and over, and over, and over) again.

I was reminded of the times my mom would insist that I write out the words for a spelling test, despite my insistence that I could learn them by osmosis. And of course my mom was right: “To memorize, it’s important that you are the one generating the material, since that is the end goal,” Dr. Troyer explained.

It helps if you understand whatever you are memorizing – I had a lot less trouble recalling all of the lines about “the yellow fog,” and “the yellow smoke,” when I imagined that Eliot is talking about a cat. Being engaged with and caring about the material also makes a big difference, which is why so many of us can sing American Pie back to front, but have trouble remembering our licence plates.

Speaking of music, one friend suggests that I try putting the poem to a tune, and I do, first with Happy Birthday (“Let us go then/you and I…”) and again with Bad Romance. I think this would have worked better had I been learning a piece with a more regular structure.

I will be totally honest and admit that after a week, I am about three-quarters done – I know the first two-thirds and the end section (“I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”), but there’s still a chunk in which I have to consult my notes. I plan to finish over the summer. Memorizing is not terribly difficult, but it does take time.

The next challenge: Guys, you get to sit this one out. This week is ladies only: Go without makeup for one week. That’s right, no mascara, no foundation, no lipstick, no gloss (we’ll give you a pass on lip balm). Was it nerve-racking or liberating? Sign up at fb.com/globelifestream to tell us how it went.

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