If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island Would You Have Any Poetry Memorized?

In fifth grade, we had to memorize a poem and recite it to the class. I loved doing that (like that shocks you) and won second place for “A Fairy Went A-Marketing” by Rose Fyleman. I was ticked off that I didn’t get first place and told myself that it was because my poem was longer than the one recited by the girl who took first place. Hahaha. Actually, I don’t know how she did because we had to go in the hall and recite our poems privately to the teacher. This was a kindness on her part, but it would have been great to listen to all the poems.

When my kids were little I had a handful of poems I’d memorized by accident that I used to recite to them with all manner of sound effects and gestures. One of my favorites was the “Double Double Toil and Trouble” passage from MacBeth. I also loved “The Spangled Pandemonium” and “Keep a Poem in Your Pocket,” as well as a couple of e.e. cummings poems. But after fifth grade, I was neither required nor encouraged to memorize poetry. A generation or two before my time students were routinely required to do so.

In that way, they would have literature to keep them company if they were stranded on a desert island or taken as a POW. Memorization of literature is good for the mind in a way that Google can never be good for us. Here’s just one article about the subject: Why We Should Memorize.

I’ve also heard that poets who recite their own poetry at readings, rather than reading them from the page, are electrifying performers. The thought of that terrifies me. What if my mind goes blank?

AS IT SO OFTEN DOES AS OF LATE. Either my brain is suffering from an overload of iPhone, iPad, computer, and social media–or it’s starting to decay. That is why I now can be sure to complete only one poem from beginning to end without ever reading it. And it so happens that little Perry loves to listen to it ;).



by Palmer Brown*


The Spangled Pandemonium

Is missing from the zoo.

He bent the bars the barest bit,

And slithered glibly through.


He crawled across the moated wall,

He climbed the mango tree,

And when his keeper scrambled up,

He nipped him in the knee.


To all of you a warning

Not to wander after dark,

Or if you must, make very sure

You stay out of the park.


For the Spangled Pandemonium

Is missing from the zoo,

And since he nipped his keeper,

He would just as soon nip you!

I figure Perry imagines himself as the Spangled Pandemonium, wanting to nip all of us if we go after him after he breaks out of his cage and the shelter.

*I tried to look up Palmer Brown and although he wrote five books for children and apparently lived from 1920-2012 I couldn’t even find an obituary for him!


Filed under Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, National Poetry Month, Poetry, Poetry reading, Writing

91 responses to “If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island Would You Have Any Poetry Memorized?

  1. I memorized “Daffodils” and the Alice In Wonderland poem “Twas brillig….” and while I cannot remember what I did Tuesday, I can remember those poems. My best friend, not to be outdone by anyone took on “Hiawatha”. I was also required to memorize piano selections. I do think its good for the brain!

    • Oh, you reminded me! (See, my brain, ugh) I still know good parts of Jabberwocky! I need to work on remembering all of it. Ah, Hiawatha. That brings back memories. Camp, all the kids lined up in 3 rows outside, reciting Hiawatha. I wonder if kids do this type of thing any more at all? Or if it’s all about learning the computer and not learning handwriting? Thanks so much for letting me know about your memorizing, Ruth!

    • I can recite first verse of Daffodils too.

  2. I still recall Ozymandias, but remember only parts of Galway Kinnel’s The Bear. I should take it up again.

  3. My father read poetry to me when I was a little girl – his favorite poet was Rudyard Kipling. I grew weary of “If,” let me tell you. But he also loved Tennyson, Poe, Scott, and a host of others.
    When I began to memorize poetry, I tried to learn the ones he quoted. Today the one I still have down pat is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” although I confess my motives for continuing to remember that one are not totally pure. Women love to have poetry quoted to them. Enough said.

    • My dad loved Kipling, too. It’s funny now–you’ve reminded me that though my father hated reading books and only read magazines (don’t think he ever read a book his whole life as he was ruined by Silas Marner, which I loved) he did always bring out his memorized poems when he felt like it. I remember when I discovered hahaha Poe and started spouting “The Raven” at him and he started reciting it WITH me. I was shocked.
      I love your Browning anecdote. You little devil you! Yes, women do. Here’s another thing you’ve reminded me of. A boy in high school liked me, and his friend was dating my girlfriend, so I sort of dated him for a brief time. He gave me a beautiful hand-lettered tiny book of poetry as a gift. It was all done on not onion skin but a translucent paper that was thicker and in calligraphy. I was so impressed. Much later I discovered that a girl who actually did care a lot about him had made it for HIM and given it to him. That turd turned around and gave it to me. I still feel bad for her.

  4. It’s funny that the first two poems people mentioned were ones that I also memorized and have loved (Jabberwocky and Ozymandias). In high school I used to think it was such a waste of time to memorize poems and I didn’t see the value of it. Now, I’m so glad we had to do it then. I LOVE knowing bits of poetry and they have become such treasures over the years.

    • I’m sure most kids have hated having to memorize poems. Now we just wish we had those memories back hahaha! Isn’t that funny how you are so appreciative now? But I do think that children exposed to poetry at a young age are more apt to enjoy literature (and maybe writing?) when they are adults.

  5. I remember having to recite a poem in elementary school, but I was so traumatized by the experience, I don’t remember the name. Yes, even back then my neck turned red. 🙁

    • Jill, that is why my teacher (who otherwise was very goofy) had us recite in privacy. I would have been scared to death and I’m sure been red as a sunset ;)!! So we were very lucky.

  6. Lovely post, Luanne.
    My late mother and I spoke in poetry a lot of the time from when I was a kid so it is absolutely part of who I am.

  7. I’ve had that same thought that I should have some things memorized in case there’s a disaster–like the people who have whole memorized books in Fahrenheit 451. Poetry competitions make me think of Anne Shirley reciting “The Highwayman” for a competition in Anne of Green Gables.

    I can also recite at least some of Jabberwocky–though I don’t think I ever tried to memorize it. At one time I could also recite most of Madeline. And my husband and I could at one time recite all of “Goodnight Moon.” 🙂

    I don’t remember ever having to memorize poetry, but every week in high school French class we had to recite the new monologue/dialogue. I was always terrified.
    My younger daughter can memorize amazingly quickly. She could always be off-book without much trouble–to the envy of the rest of the cast.

    • I always feel like an incompetent when I realize how little I remember. Madeline and Goodnight Moon! I didn’t count picture books! Of course. Yes, I can recite Goodnight Moon and Green Eggs and Ham and a few others. Where the Wild Things Are, for sure. That would have scared me in French class. I like learning languages on paper, but French was so scary to pronounce because I just knew people were waiting to make fun of me. And it did really happen as an adult. An arrogant Canadian cookbook writer was seated next to the gardener and me. We were very young and she thought he was the cat’s miao. Then she heard my French accent after ignoring me to talk over me to him and laughed herself silly. I still haven’t recovered.
      Yes, actor daughter has a nearly photographic short term memory. So jealous. But my long term is better.

      • I still remember one of the French dialogues–and it showed up on an episode of The West Wing (the president’s daughter said it to a friend). 🙂
        I think my daughter has a better short term and long term memory. Of course, I’ve had a longer term to remember. Haha.

    • Madeline! Loved that. I didn’t even think about all the children’s books I have memorized over the years… not on purpose but in repetition! Snow Snow I love Snow. Do you like it? Yes or no!

  8. The Charge of the Light Brigade will be with me forever.

  9. Charming selection. No obituary? Really? How dreadful is that?
    I have memorized many poems. The ones I read through my childhood, and then read to my students, and then to the first set of kids, and then to the second set of kids… and now grandies. Some small books, too. Seuss and the like.
    I have a collection I go back to for comfort, that sorta tea and blanket and book mode, and I have a lot of those memorized, too.
    I wish we could hear poets long gone read their own words. Imagine.

    • It seems insulting that there is no obituary for a man who wrote 5 books for children. The Dr. Seuss books I memorized from reading them so many times were Green Eggs and Ham and Hop on Pop.
      Imagine, yes! I would love to be a fly on the wall and time travel!

  10. On a desert island I’d only have a few snatches of poetry, but I know a lot of songs. Songs are my poetry — the lines I reach for to clarify what I’m seeing or thinking, or to inspire me to keep going. I suspect that’s true for a lot of us, especially us folkie-bluesy types.

    • Oh, yes, definitely music. I know that some people consider lyrics to be lesser than poetry, but there are a lot of PARTICULARLY folk songs that are poems, no doubt. I know that wasn’t your point, but that’s what you made me think of.

  11. I know only scraps of poems.

  12. I don’t know many full poems, though I know a lot of snippets from A Child’s Garden of Verses and Mother Goose, both of which were read to me often as a child. Oh, and “James James Morrison Morrison” by A.A. Milne. I wouldn’t be a good cellmate.

    • Remind me to room with Valerie (below) instead of you, Theresa ;). Is it “How do you like to go up in a swing?” I used to love his poetry. “The Land of Counterpane.” I used to be sick a lot as a kid like Stevenson, so I could relate!

  13. I do know the last stanza of Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods” by heart, because I want it engraved on my headstone (not that I will have a headstone since I want to be cremated, so metaphorically I guess?). It has been a guiding philosophy for me ever since I read it back in my 20’s!

    • Well, since I didn’t know the poem, I had to go look it up. What a cool stanza to have engraved on one’s headstone! If you’re going to be cremated, maybe I will use it. I do not want to be cremated. I want an old-fashioned headstone. I’m still not happy that my father switched at the last minute to the veteran’s cemetery with their in-ground markers instead of headstones.

  14. I have two “party trick” poems I can recite from memory, Emily Dickinson’s gem “Wild Nights” and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Shy by nature, I am no public speaker, but recently got up the courage to recite Jabberwocky to a live audience of about 30 poets. Whew! What a rush!

    • Oh, Wild Nights, yes! That’s a good one, especially to recite to an audience that includes people who might not have read much poetry. hahaha And Jackerwocky, wow, that is so cool that you recited it to 30 poets! I would have been SOOOOOOOO nervous! Great job!

  15. I’ve never had to recite poetry, but I’ve envied those who could. One of my Shakespeare professors, who was British, talked about how even his parents expected him and his siblings to be able to recite Shakespeare. I think it was the online poetry class I took some time ago, where there was a discussion about memorization and how, if you were memorizing poetry, it could both stimulate the brain and calm the nerves. I used to have an app for this, I think 😉

    • I love that last line. So funny! Memorizing poetry seems like the opposite of phone apps hahaha. I think we can all use some of this “old-fashioned” discipline. You should join Robert and me in May to memorize some poetry!

      • Hmmm … I’ll think about it. I signed up for a free fiction writing course but I’m not sure if I’ll do that because I really need to be working on my novel. I’m going to look for an app or website. I have a vague memory of using some tool for memorization … you’d start with the whole poem and as you progress, lines would be removed, forcing you to remember. It’s an educational tool that was used in an accounting class (of all things) I took years ago.

        • I’ve never heard of that way of memorizing! I was just wondering, too, how to even begin–it’s been so long! Oh, the course sounds good, but so does the focus on your novel!

  16. Oh Luanne, what a subject… my generation were always learning poetry, from Elizabeth Barret Browning and Walter Scott ‘Breathes there the man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, this is my own,my native land etc etc… endless passages from Shakespeare, Tennyson, Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners, Coleridge,et al, while I learned most of Jane Eyre by heart when I was fourteen, I was so mesmerised by it… I could recite it for three hours at a stretch, and did, to amuse them in the dormitory late at night at school !!!

    • I’m in absolute LOVE with your comment here, Valerie! It makes my heart speed up! Jane Eyre! How marvelous. And all these wonderful poets. The image of you reciting in the school dormitory is so charming. Why did no one ever make me memorize Shakespeare, for goodness sakes? I would have loved to have been pushed to this instead of memorization being “sidelined” and considered unimportant and old-fashioned. So ridiculous. And now I have the challenge from my friend Robert (above). Or maybe we challenged each other. We will memorize in May! I hope this exhausted brain can manage!

  17. I don’t think we were ever required to memorise poetry. I know snatches of particular poems, but I wouldn’t have a full one to keep me company on a desert island!

    • That’s the thing. I think so many of us only remember bits and pieces, but to remember the whole thing is quote something else. I plan to start working on it in May, as soon as my son is married and honeymooning! Then I can focus.

  18. Luanne, I love your thoughts about memorizing a poem. I was memorizing poems for a while last year, as a way to really understand the word choices that were being made by the poet. It was really interesting!

    • There’s another great bonus to memorizing poetry–learning more about what makes a poem work. Very cool. Did you have any tricks to memorizing, Theresa? I’m kind of wondering how to get started.

      • Oh! thank you, Luanne! That is such a compliment coming from a poet with your wit and beautiful way with words.
        I found it hard at first, but I started with a poem that had rhymes or connecting language. My first two were 1) W. H. Auden’s seeming-elegy, “Funeral Blues” – since I saw it in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral” I have had it in my mind, https://allpoetry.com/Funeral-Blues, and 2) Langston Hughes’s anthem “I, Too” – the language and the declaration in this is stunning, I think. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47558
        I also think, a favorite poem is one to start with. There is the emotional desire to really learn the poet’s words if you love the poem!
        Thank you for asking, I am honored that you took the time to let me know you enjoyed hearing about my experiment! Now I feel I need to find a new poem to memorize, I forgot how much I enjoyed it! 🦄 (unicorn emoji)

        • The Hughes poem I know well. And I can see where that one would be a bit “easier” than most to memorize. In fact, now that you say this I am thinking that the “modernist” poems, like those by Auden (with those rhyming couplets!) and Hughes and even the ones who came before like Dickinson and Whitman would be easier than so many of the poems that have been written in the past several decades. So you’ve given me two ideas here–first choose a poem I love and probably try a modernist one! Thank you!!!!

  19. Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve memorized just about anything. I mean we don’t even have to memorize phone numbers anymore! 😛 I think it’s time I started doing some more of this memorization. It’s not only good for us, it’s fun! Thanks for the thoughts! 😀

  20. I used to read my children poetry when they were young and they can all still recite every line of “Triantiwontigongolope” by CJ Dennis and so can I 😀 xxx

  21. Currently hosting a Shakespearean blog party. Can only vaguely remember witches ‘Macbeth scene. Can recite first. Verse of Daffidodils. Like Shakespeare, Wordsworth died on this day.

    • I once could recite the entire witches chant. Oh, you’re right about the anniversary of their deaths! Thank you for the reminder and for stopping by!

  22. I like nursery rhymes and although common amongst our generation, less and less are recited or taught. “Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one, and down he comes, hickory dickory dock.” I also like There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. . .So (or “too”?) many children she didn’t know what to do. . .” Songs like “My bonnie lies over the ocean, . . .”
    When I was in high school, I participated in Kent State foreign language “declamation contests.” I came in second and fifth in Spanish. Not sure how many entered and details, Luanne. I memorized one poem each year, junior and senior years. Sending you hugs, Luanne. Please spread little gentle pats and scratches behind cat ears around from Robin! xo

    • Robin, I just found comments on this old post! I’m so sorry! I used to love My Bonnie so much that I named my walking doll that Grandma gave me when I was 4 “Bonnie” ;). You are a rock star for doing so well in Spanish, Robin! Wow, I am impressed!
      I will give Perry the pats NOW!

      • Aww, no worries, Luanne. 💮 I am constantly going in circles with life as I know it! So glad Perry will get his pats. 😊 I feel really proud of my “rock star” status in this comment!
        I tend to see comments on my older posts as kind of extra special nuggets when I manage to go back and discover one. Have a terrific rest of the weekend.

        • That’s exactly how I felt. And the guilt :/.

          • No guilt between us! I am glad you shared about Bonnie and how she got her name. 🙂

            • I still have her, of course ;).

              • Aww, Bonnie is lucky to have never been abandoned, Luanne! I have a few dolls left but not my “Little Miss Echo” walking doll. 🙁 xo

              • Aw, a lot of people probably don’t know what walking dolls are!

              • It was a special doll since my Dad couldn’t believe my four year old request to Santa. I only wanted red patent leather shoes. Then, when pressed was that all? I responded, “Peace on Earth.” Probably due to Christmas songs. The Santa said, “There is Peace on Earth. Hohoho!”
                My Dad wanted to know why I was sad as I got down off Santa’s lap. I told him he wasn’t the “real Santa,” because of what he said.
                Mom told me Dad went off to search for a big gift for me. ❤
                I wrote this as a story in high school and pictured an ex-army or military man, playing Santa and going home world weary, popping open a beer while bombs and hand to hand combat proceeded in Vietnam, Luanne. It went into our high school literary magazine. 🙂

              • Wow, Robin, what an experience. That is so wonderful that you were able to craft a story out of it that was published in your school magazine! What a sweet little girl you were! And how perceptive!

  23. As a teacher I challenged my fifth graders to memorize the entire Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. Every last kid did it and they performed it as a drama to the rest of the school. It amazes me still what kids can do if you believe in them.

    Our “low functioning” foster girl has trouble at school but has memorized some Robert Lewis Stevenson.

    My memory is the one lacking. I’d be on the Desert Island singing The Partridge Family theme song.

    • What is wrong with me? Seriously, I find comments I didn’t even know I had on older posts. Why doesn’t WP notice me? Stupid WP or stupid me, one or the other. So sorry! Good for you for asking them to do it! I love that your girl has memorized some Stevenson!!!! Oh, that makes my heart sing! At my poetry reading, a cousin brought her middle school son and one of the poets reading at the open mic took it upon himself to recite an entire Kipling poem and speak it right at the kid–it was so sweet!

  24. Found this while looking for The Spangled Pandemonium – I wanted to link it to my friend, who had earlier been lightly nipped by a dog, to amuse her and to try to explain why the word “nip” tickles me. I thought the better of it, but how charming to read the poem again and in such an interesting context.

    • Hi Elizabeth, thanks for letting me know. Yikes, I always think of that (dog biting) with the poem. The funny thing is that although Perry is now quite socialized in my house, and I no longer need to recite poetry to him to get him socialized, if I say, “Do you want ‘The Spangled Pandemonium’?’ he sits very straight up and looks at me with full attention while I recite the whole thing hahaha.

  25. I am a grizzled old 71 year old but still can recite the first verse of “The Spangled Pandemonium”.
    The entire poem was committed to memory in the 6th grade at the behest of a teacher that still evokes fond memories for me. She encouraged me to read Dickens extracurricularly, specifically “A Tale of Two Cities”, and spawned a love of reading that lasted till my eyes failed me. What wonderful adventures she opened for my by that tutelage. It has enriched my life far beyond my experiences. I’m sure she is in heaven by now but can surely see how grateful I am for her influence on my life.

Leave a Reply