Last year, wishing I had more poems by heart—for pleasure, yes, but also for a secular recourse to prayer when stressed, or when waiting—I made myself an audio guide for memorizing Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency.” That file was too grainy to share, but it worked: after listening on my walks for a few weeks, I found I had his poem available to me not just when I mentally called it up, but also whenever any of its words pass by in daily life: noticing a lotus, a shawl, a subway handy, a record store, a vague blue sky, anything that pumps or slanders, brings the poem to my throat.
I’ve done the same with Bernadette Mayer’s “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica,” this time breaking the files down so it’s easier to replay just the most useful versions on your own walks.
How to Use the Memorization Guide
Get to know the poem
Your first task is to become familiar with the poem, if you aren’t already. Listen to it (“Straight Read-Through”) a couple of times, and try to anticipate which parts will come easiest, which you’ll struggle with. For example, I always get the title wrong—I want it to be How to rather than The Way—and I really struggle with the line “There's not much point in its being over: but we do not speak them:,” I think because “it” is a surprising antecedent for “them.”
You might choose to know the poem only as sound, in which case, you can skip the advice for reading/writing. But I find it helpful to first study the line breaks, and to construct, for my own purposes, a sense of the poem’s structure.
Repeat after me, line-by-line
The second audio file (“Repeat-after-me, line-by-line version) leaves a silence equivalent to each line break, to give you time to repeat the line aloud after you’ve heard it. You can do this while cooking, while lying in bed, while petting the cat, or while walking; on a commute, I recommend wearing a mask and whispering.
Continue this repetition until you find you’re able to anticipate at least half the lines before you hear them.
I repeat after you, line-by-line
Using the same file, switch from speaking after you’ve heard the line to predicting each line in advance.
Continue this predictive repetition until you have the lines down.
Write/type the poem
From memory, now, write (or type) as much of the poem as you can. Then, consult the original, noting any corrections, omissions, or errors in order. Use this list of corrections to identify which parts of the poem require more study.
Repeat/anticipate larger blocks
The third audio file uses the same method, but with slightly larger sections than individual lines. Repeat the above steps using this file.
Focus on difficult sections
In case you find yourself stuck on one section of the poem, I’ve also recorded it in smaller chunks, so you can focus your practice on a shorter section with an easily looped file.
Bonus tracks: the poem in many moods
As you memorize the poem, you’ll find yourself beginning to interpret it—sometimes it will remind you of the panic attack Mayer documents, whereas other times it will strike you as angry, or sexy, or tired, or cloying. To promote this effect, and as a sonic joke, I’ve recorded it in some ridiculous voices, too: there’s an overly-chipper version, a bitter version, and a sultry version.
If you use this guide to memorize the poem, please let me know! I’ll also take requests/advice for future guides @ firstname.lastname@example.org.