The Memory Enhancing Power of Poetry

You probably haven’t had to memorize a poem since high school and, if memory serves, you did it because you had to, not because you wanted to. At the time you were probably doing it to get through class, get a better grade, or get the girl. Today, perhaps the best argument for memorizing verse or poem is that it can help us improve our memory power. Like Sudoku, crosswords or any other brain games, memorizing works to stimulate the brain. Poetry, in addition to a mental workout, provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and Physiologically different variety. A poem goes beyond just rote memorization, it gets inside you – into your brain, if not your blood.

Learning something by heart lets you repeat it. It helps bring back memories, new and old. It gets a way of thinking inside your mind’s-eye that lets you see things and feel things in a way that’s totally different than the machine memory of a computer. This is brain memory and it exercises and excites the brain in a completely different way. 

Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that poetry is, “A powerful tool for tapping into old memories…” She continues, “…it is improving memory competence, it’s making people feel competent about their memories – bringing joy, and returning some dignity. 

Try it for yourself. Here are two poems – of vastly different degrees of difficulty – to get you started.

O Captain! My Captain!

by Walt Whitman

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

      But O heart! heart! heart

            O the bleeding drops of red,

                  Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                      Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

      Here captain! dear father!

            This arm beneath your head;

                  It is some dream that on the deck,

                        You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

      Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!

            But I, with mournful tread,

                  Walk the deck my captain lies,

                      Fallen cold and dead.

Fishy Fishy

Fishy Fishy in the brook

Daddy catch you with a hook

Mommy fry you in a pan

Baby eat you like a man.