The Magic 100 Number–Could You Memorize 100 Poems?

100 seems to be a magic number for lots of educational enterprises. We on this blog are collecting lists of good memoirs, are trying to read and review 100 memoirs, and are learning about the genre through reading, writing and online conversation.

Rosanne Cash had a list of 100 songs from her father Johnny as the base of her education in country music that later became both an acclaimed record album and a crucial part of her memoir.

The book pictured here presents a challenge: could you memorize 100 poems? Why would anyone want to do so when Google gets you access to most of the world’s great poems?

There are many eloquent testimonials online about the value of learning poetry by heart. French schoolchildren do so routinely. American education has dropped the practice.

What do you think? Do you memorize and recite poetry? Should education go back to requiring the practice?


Shirley Showalter


  1. shirleyhs on March 29, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    I meant to also recommend this lovely essay by Beth Ann Fennelly in The American Poetry Review–on her 100 memorized poems:

  2. Kathleen Friesen on March 29, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    I haven’t memorized a hundred poems. But, I do memorize poems. And my husband memorize poems.

    I occasionally recite them to groups and organizations where I’m engaged. There is power in internalizing words and rhythms. There is power in speaking words in rhythm. The power can change the conversation, externally and internally. The power can create connections that are deeper for having accessed emotion and created a shared experience.

    I look forward to reflections from you and your readers on this subject.

    • shirleyhs on March 30, 2011 at 12:51 am

      I agree, Kathleen, and I have a few of my own memorized–although I need to brush up on them. I’d be curious to know which poems you have memorized and why you selected those.

      My own? From high school–selections from Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth. Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” Tenneyson’s “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” “In Flander’s Fields” by John McCrae. And a number of Emily Dickinson poems.

      I highly recommend the essay in the first comment above. I think you will enjoy it! Thanks for your comments, as always.

  3. Jerry Waxler on March 30, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    This is an interesting challenge, Shirley. I have often thought that if I had been born a few decades earlier, I would have been taught to memorize poems. Now you’ve made me think. I can’t turn back my birth date, but maybe as an adult I can put this on my list of things to do. (Definitely more than 100.) Does the author simply recite the poems, or also explain the benefits and strategies for loading these things into mind?

    Memory Writers Network

    • shirleyhs on March 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm

      So glad you are challenged by the idea, Jerry. The internet is actually a great place to find tips on how to memorize.

      Most begin with really reading and understanding the passage. Another is to take a stack of post-it notes and make one for each verse. Then, as you learn one, peal it off and move to the next. I think I may try this for I Corinthians 13, a passage I memorized long ago and plan to use in the speech on “The Purpose of Memory” I am about to give. I will then go on a walk and see if I can return with the entire passage re-memorized.

      I have loaded Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, about his year of study on the way to becoming the U.S. Memory Champion, to my Kindle and think it is a great book. It is full of historical info on memory. Most fascinating. There was a time before writing when memory was everything in education and learning. We can hardly imagine it today.

  4. Sharon Lippincott on March 30, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    The only poem I remember memorizing is The Night Before Christmas, and I knew that one at age 5. My 90-year-old father can reel off whole chapters of Chaucer and Shakespeare as well as many other poems, but I was hardly even exposed to poetry in school, thus have never developed an appreciation for it. Maybe, like Jerry, I’ll put this on my bucket list.

    Yes, I think schools should emphasize memory work now more than ever, considering the extent to which our brains are moving into the tips of our fingers and our devices.

  5. Brenda Bartella Peterson on March 30, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. There is something nourishing to the soul in having poems memorized and available to you in a flash. I regret that students are no longer required to memorize poems in school. I smile with affection with I think about having memorized the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in old English for Mr. Helton in high school English class. I can still recite it 40+ years later!

    • Shirley on March 31, 2011 at 12:32 am

      I am so impressed that you memorized such a difficult passage and even more impressed that you haven’t forgotten it. I wonder what you would say the value of that task has been for you all these years? Has it changed over time?

      Thanks for confirming the value at least some of us find in memorization.

      Another thing that happens is that books that we love and reread begin to form memories that go deep into our bones. We can see the place on the page where words we love are written. They are always there for us.

  6. DazyDayWriter on March 31, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    100 poems has a lovely ring to it — in the literal sense or otherwise. Thanks for the thought, Shirley. Maybe it will lead to some sort of creative breakthrough or insight.


    100 poems danced in my head
    weaving to and fro
    like the willow tree outside my door,
    so I sat down to write or to recite,
    but, lo, the wind had blown them
    all away …

  7. shirleyhs on March 31, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks, Daisy, you made me smile! The only thing that trumps poetry in the Romantic world view is nature herself.

    I had to think of Wordsworth’s Daffodils, one of the poems I half-memorized in my youth. Here it is, from, just for you:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

    Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle on the milky way,
    They stretched in never-ending line
    Along the margin of a bay:
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

    The waves beside them danced; but they
    Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
    A poet could not but be gay,
    In such a jocund company:
    I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought:

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    William Wordsworth

  8. Mary Pfeiffer on April 1, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    When 1st graders were asked to chose something to present at their PTA program, most children in my daughter’s class chose nursery rhymes or simple songs. My daughter recited “The Spider and the Fly,” a lengthy poem by Mary Howitt. It is only one of the dozens that her grandfather quoted from memory so often that she also had it memorized. Interestingly, his repertoire of poems is always accompanied by appropriate application to children’s lives–and the grandchildren have learned both the poems and their meanings.

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