Memorising poems has been much in the news lately. Classrooms recitals for children seem to be making a comeback. Julianne Moore’s character in ‘Still Alice’ is seen reciting Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’. For the last National Poetry Day theme of ‘Remembering’, Tony Mitton in the Guardian offered his top ten poems for children to learn from memory.
I was always impressed at how many lines of poetry my mother could still remember and recite, nearly 80 years after she learnt them in school. She told me her sister Ivy was better at it – ‘good at spouting’ was her term for it. I liked telling her when I was going to be ‘spouting’ at a poetry reading – although in honesty, I rarely spout, because I’ve never gone to the trouble of learning my own poems from memory, and I although I did learn poems for English exams at school (because we had to quote them) I don’t think I ever recited them, except to myself.
Ted Hughes’s ‘Hawk Roosting’ was one I learned back to front and upside down. In his introduction to By Heart – 101 Poems to Remember (Faber 1997), Hughes gives us an essay on the pleasure of memorising by using imagery and the visceral senses – age-old techniques which he claims were largely eradicated during the Protestantisation of England as being somehow ‘pagan’ or ‘catholic’, to be replaced by ‘rote learning’. I wonder if the loathing of rote learning is one of the factors behind the negative attitude of many people to poetry.
So what about today’s poets? Why are we not performing more of our work from memory? Of course I’m talking about ‘page’ poets here – whatever you think of the distinction, it exists. Perhaps the word ‘performing’ is a clue. Not all poets are performers, or wish to be. And reading without the prop of a book or a sheet of paper does mean answering some scary questions – what do I do with my hands? Where do I look? and not least of all What will happen if I forget the words?
Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of hosting Telltale Poets & Friends here in Lewes, in the warm glow of the (packed) upstairs room of the Lewes Arms, and the first reader was our own Peter Kenny. I’ve heard Peter read quite a few times now, and he has a natural presence and a voice that never fails to pull you in. Last night he gave an outing to a poem I’d not heard before, which he explained had been written thirty years ago or so. It was long, and he recited it from memory. Not just that, but it was a performance – not in the sense that it seemed choreographed or rehearsed, but more that it involved his whole body – in the reciting, in the meaning of the words, in the remembering. It felt powerful, and it seemed to draw in the audience, sharp as a laser. I’ve experienced this before – Cristina Navazo-Eguía Newton is mesmerising when she famously performs her work from memory.
So I’m now inspired to memorise one or two of my own (all pretty short) poems. I’ve a number of readings coming up, the first being Poetry in the House in London next week, at which I’m the first reader. Dare I set myself the goal of performing a poem from memory? Or perhaps start with a more modest goal – having the book in hand in case I get into trouble, but not looking at it? Would that work? I’m not sure. I know when it comes to singing, I’m more able to sing confidently from memory if I don’t have the music available to fall back on.
I’m interested to know other people’s experiences of reciting or performing free verse from memory. Is it in your repertoire? Something you would like to do more, or no inclination? Do you enjoy or prefer it when poets read from memory?