Spaced-repetition strategies for poetry

Memorizing poetry can be a tough problem for Anki users: it isn’t obvious how to divide it into discrete cards. People often try one of the following approaches:

  • Putting the whole poem onto one card. This is a bad idea because if you have trouble with any part of the poem, you’ll have to fail the entire card, thus you will review far more often than you need to.
  • Creating one card per line and defining an order for the cards, so Anki asks for the lines in order. Aside from this being impossible in the current version of Anki, spaced-repetition scheduling doesn’t work properly unless the cards are in random order.

LPCG takes a different approach: it generates cards that can stand on their own and make perfect sense in random order. Each card shows several lines from the poem and then asks you to recite some following lines. By default, it shows two lines of context and asks you to recite one line, and tests each line exactly once, but the details can be changed if needed.

In my experience, LPCG is not a good way to memorize poetry: not seeing the full context makes initial acquisition unnecessarily difficult. However, it is a great way to review poetry. This is fine, because as most Anki users know, the big problem isn’t learning things in the first place, it’s remembering them for long periods of time.

If you don’t know a good way of initially learning poems, look at the Initial memorization section, below.

Initial memorization

The LPCG method works best if you memorize your poems before you start reviewing them in Anki. As alluded to in the Spaced-repetition strategies for poetry section, there are a lot of good ways to memorize poetry initially; it’s retaining it that’s hard.

If you’re already good at memorizing poetry, don’t listen to me, just use your own method; there’s nothing magical about this one. But if you don’t have a good method, here’s one that works well for me and many others.

  1. If you haven’t already done so, read through the poem carefully so you have a general idea of how it goes.
  2. Read through the poem again, line by line. This time, immediately after you read each line, look away from the page and repeat the line back. If you stumble or get it wrong, try again until you get it right: read the line again, then look away and repeat it again. It is helpful but not strictly necessary to speak out loud.
  3. Repeat step 2, but take two lines at a time – then repeat with three, four, five, and six. You will find it gets a little bit harder each time, but not much, since you’re getting more familiar with the poem as well; before you know it you’ll be able to remember six lines at a time. It is unnecessary to continue this process beyond six lines.
  4. Set the poem aside until the next day – it is truly remarkable how much easier it is to continue after a good night’s sleep. Do not skip this step! The rest will be easy if you do it and quite frustrating if you don’t.
  5. Try reciting the poem straight through. If the text is easy, you may have it already; otherwise, go back and work on any spots you don’t have down yet. No particular method is necessary at this point. Don’t work for more than a few minutes; just touching all the difficult spots is enough.
  6. The next day, repeat step 5. Most likely the poem will now come very naturally to you. Particularly difficult texts may require one more day.

Once you have the poem learned, put it into Anki if you want to remember it beyond the next couple of weeks – this is where LPCG comes into play.

It is totally fine to take breaks during step 3, even doing it over several days; you’ll spend 90% of your concentrated time in this step, and it’s not helpful to try to work when you’re tired.