Why is it important to learn a poem by heart? Robert Butler interviewed a painter in his mid 80s who had W.H. Auden as a teacher in the 1930s:
He also said that Auden would insist that the boys in his class learn poem after poem by heart. Even parrot-fashion. Auden said it didn’t matter whether they understood them. If they learnt the poems now, they would not forget them and maybe, later in life, they would understand them. “It’s true,” the painter told me, “I can still remember them.”
Why does learning a poem by heart help us understand it better? It’s because poems are meant to be spoken and heard as opposed to read, just like choreography is meant to be seen and music is supposed to be felt and listened to. A poem should not just go into our eyes and then into our brains. It should be breathed and experienced in our bodies. Memorizing it puts it into our bodies, into our nervous system. And the chance of finding more of its sense will be much greater. This dude remembers lines of poetry he memorized 75 years ago. They are in his bones.