On Memorization: Some Thoughts on “Owning” Your Own Work

On Memorization: Some Thoughts on “Owning” Your Own Work

by Christie Ann Reynolds on March 16, 2010

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in Aesthetics

When I was 19 I interned at The Bowery Poetry Club. I can tell you that I didn’t get much done in the way of writing press releases; I was there to experience poetry. I was there to meet the real live poets who didn’t seem to exist on my college campus. I attended a private Long Island university where writing poetry meant none of the business student boys wanted to date me and most of the frat guys thought a stanza was a complicated version of the keg stand. Therefore, at The Bowery Poetry Club, I thought I was going to find what I was looking for: Poets Who Took Poetry Seriously.

Performers with names like Lovely Lazarus and Serenity Divine would grace the stage in mismatched outfits and dirty hair and then proceed to swoon the entire audience with a kind of audible beauty I imagine the Sirens possessed. Their lyrical composition was balanced by emotive arm movements or by their ability to seamlessly weave a poem from Prince’s When Doves Cry. There was a kind of competition amongst these poets usually noted amongst athletes. The audience scored each performer on a scale of 1 to 10 and reigning champs not only had bragging rights but word-of-mouth-fame.

While these performers were certainly impressive, and the ability to memorize a fifteen-minute performance can undoubtedly be envied, I soon realized that this group of poets were really, performers. It wasn’t that performing their work automatically made them more performer and less poet. It was that the sole purpose of their poetry was to be heard. It was poetry intent on being sung, enhanced with jumping and hip-jutting and physical rigor. It was my first live introduction to slam poetry and the incredible presence of Bob Holman’s master performers. However, I realized very quickly, that while I could envy the ability of any poet who could make an audience both cry and laugh, the purpose of my recitation and reading would not be supported by numerical scores or competitive bravado. I didn’t see myself as that kind of poet—one who read with entertainment in mind.

Fast forward about five years later to a classroom at The New School where the late Liam Rector sat before us in a room pungent with his last cigarette break. He looked  regal in his thick framed glasses, his hand stroking his chin as he demanded an answer: “Are you going to make it to your 25th year?” The 25th year was Rector’s figurative marker for a poet’s success.  Basically, if we didn’t reach that 25th year, we wouldn’t become Poets For Life. Aside from Rector’s ability to shake the very fear of poetry into his young pupils, he also cultivated a level of respect from us that resided in his ability to quote, recite and often assume the voices of Gunn, Larkin, Yeats, Sexton, Keats, Wordsworth and others that he mentioned too quickly for us to write them down. This ability was part of Rector’s lure. We often left class dizzy with names, lines, and an ever growing list of books we had to read if we were ever going to be the kind of poets he would call Poets. At one point, this combination of my departure from the slam poets I observed as a teenager and now the notion that a serious poet worthy of being a poet had to be able to quote 100 or more “important poets” cultured an anxiety that made me shun the idea of memorization completely. Truthfully, I felt I was incapable of memorizing a poem and knowing it so well that one would be unable to tell where I began and the poem ended. The very idea numbed me. I felt the page was where my words belonged and I would read my poems for people to hear them, sure, but it would not become a kind of game like the competitive events at The Bowery Poetry Club. I suppose I had unknowingly resigned myself to the category of poets that Do Not Memorize. I realize now, this fear was part of being a green, insecure graduate student and also about being under the spell of Liam Rector—a spell that has transfixed all of us who were among the very last group of students he taught.

Fast-forward again to 2010. I give a reading at this beautiful wine shop in Brooklyn. I recite, from memory, a few sections of a longer poem. I proceed to read newer poems that are not memorized, but I can give three or four lines without glancing down. I know the poems. The poems know me. I don’t feel a separation between the words and my page and my body. There is something physical about the way these specific poems ask to be read. I didn’t choose this, they chose. Several people approach me at the end of the reading. They want to know how long it took me to memorize, how I chose which poems I would recite. Later, I’m inundated with fellow poets who talk about how they cannot memorize their poems and how it is just so hard to do, etc. I’m told that reading my poems from memory was  “kind of badass.” I immediately think of Liam Rector and I suppose that for a moment or two, I feel like a Badass Poet.

Fast forward yet again a few weeks later. I read some of the same poems in a lovely coffee shop. One fellow poet compliments my reading and she says that she likes how they read like a monologue. A stranger tells me it was his favorite part of the reading. Later in the reading, James Copeland reads from his new chapbook, Why I Steal and for one poem only, he completely leaves the page. His eyes click with the audience and from memory he speaks to us. He isn’t even necessarily reciting the poem but talking to all of us as we recline in our little green chairs. The hazy moment of hearing the third poet of the night is now magical and memorable. My non-poet friends tell me that it is their favorite poem of Copeland’s. I too, agree.  As Copeland continues, the poem lifts into the air and we can see it and touch it and we understand something about Copeland’s poems. There is a connectivity, a sincere quality that becomes apparent when he recites this one poem: the poem is human.

Obviously, I have been thinking about memorization a lot. A lot. I have always analyzed the way people read, their inflection, their tone. I pay attention to accents, to poets who read in a voice other than the one that they speak with and I like knowing that a poet knows his or her work so well that they feel it is necessary to give the poem the kind of life it wouldn’t have if it stayed locked in a line or inside of a book. I am curious about whether or not they pace their living room, reading the poems over and over so they can hear them aloud, so they can listen to what the poems want to do or how they should change.

Of course, there are poems I will never read aloud—they are too cumbersome in my mouth or their structure is complicated and only suited to burden the eye. There are poems that are written with an audible voice in my head and these are surely, the ones that find a sound stage. I have to add that I really enjoy reading. When I stand at the podium, sails lift inside of me. The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria are off inside of my limbs and each poem is a new America. A nervous (sometimes very nervous) excitement builds until it finds itself in a new world. There is something familiar about reading the poem aloud—perhaps because I have done so many times. There is also the thrill of foreign discovery: moments the audience laughs when I didn’t expect them to or lines that hang in the air long enough for people to recite them back to me at the end. I often find myself feeling just as scintillated when I see someone recite his or her own work.

So why all of this obsessive thinking about the recitation of memorized poems? Many of you may feel that yes, well, knowing one’s work is part of a being a poet—a way of making the work, “one’s own.” The truth is that a friend and fellow poet and I got into a slightly heated (on my part) debate. He said that he didn’t like when people recited their work; it made him nervous. He liked a fellow poet’s recitation the least of one particular reading, which I only assumed, was also what he hated about mine. He said that finding recitation favorable was “a matter of taste” and that the time one spends time memorizing could be the time one spent writing. This is one of those moments when I realize that you, dear reader, may align yourself with the enemy and say, well yes it is a waste of time! Yes, one could be writing new poems instead of memorizing. However, what you need to realize (and probably already know) is that for every ten poems you write, one or two will be “good.” I say, you could have spent the time writing those crappy poems, memorizing the one or two good poems.

In short, My Friend Against Memorization believes that memorizing one’s poems and reciting them from memory at a reading is a waste of time, if not a little pretentious. Given my love of arguing, and the challenge (because it truly is a personal challenge) of memorizing one’s work, I made this a personal battle.  I stated that for one, his poems were not the kind of poems that begged to be memorized and given flight by the reader’s eye contact and tone. He agreed. I offered this notion as a small white flag and suggested that perhaps this was why he felt so beleaguered by memorization. I also pointed out that some poems lie flat on the page but when spoken, are infused with a gorgeous rage that is confirmed on the faces of the people listening. Most poets I know are in awe of other poets who read from memory. So why does my friend disagree so wholeheartedly? Is there something I am missing? Am I caught up in the glam of performing? (I am a Leo, after all…)

I think part of the answer lies in the way we accept confrontation. Rector’s knowledge was intimidating to a young graduate student. However, his delivery also enforced a power that few recognize until they are faced with it. I’d like to think of the audience like the soon-to-be-prey of a rattlesnake or a deer in the headlights of a clattering car that will not have time to move. We are all shaken, even if just a little bit, by something coming head on. When a poet is at the podium, staring at you, reading a piece of work, there is no red cape. You can look away, but you feel that poet’s eyes on you like a bull charging. In a memorized poetry reading the tauromachy becomes human. It is going to draw an opinion from the crowd and that opinion is based on how one feels about being taken and swept up into someone else’s world. This isn’t to say that if you aren’t impressed by the memorization of a poem that there is something wrong with you or that you avoid confrontation or conflict. But I do think, that if you can’t find something innate, something diamond and startling about a poet who delivers a poem, eyes locked to the audience, like a line drive to the heart, that you are missing one of the targets of poetry itself. Why keep all of it on the page? Why not give yourself up to the poem entirely?

Poetry began in the mouth. It was given by the voice as a gift. Today we write on Macs and Dells and print out a stark white sheet with little black letters on it and these letters spell something and that something is read—silently or aloud. I think that there are poems that can exist and be resonate if only seen and read silently. I’ve seen Joshua Beckman read directly from the page and feel just as inspired as when Carolyn Forche recites The Colonel. But I also believe that hearing a poet recite a piece from memory is like watching a plane take off from the runway.

You know that both poet and poem are connected, but you also need to see and hear the poem delivered completely away from the page, to know it can fly. I felt this way when I heard Eileen Myles read. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Sorry, Tree before, but hearing her tone injected a fire into me that didn’t exist in the private experience of me and the page alone. Hearing her recite pieces of the book, hearing her give not only her voice but the poem to us, cemented the experience. This experience, I believe, is an experience. When you go to hear live music, you want to feel what the musician is singing. Of course some musician’s lyrics stand alone, but most require the live presentation to sustain a following. All of us are a little bit Amelia Earhart—we stand in the field and wait for that plane to soar over us just as we sit at a reading and pray not to be bored. When a writer is reciting from memory, I pay attention a little more and I’m less inclined to let the words slip in and out of me as fast as they are spoken.

The topic of memorizing other poet’s poems is one that I am preparing to delve into and I assure you, that if you stay tuned, I can offer more insight into what is a kind of craft—just as nostalgic as making a book by hand. Poets Who Memorize the work of “classic” and contemporary poets are like physicists who internalize the periodic table or pilots who know the migration of all the birds on their flight path.  I have several friends who try to memorize another poet’s poem each week. I regard them with mixed jealousy and respect. I think if we want to be responsible writers, we should commit to knowing a few pieces that live inside of us, not only in a book. The truth is, it IS difficult to memorize many of the nuances in a poem, especially ones that are wrought with complicated enjambment. Therefore, by accepting the challenge, you can only further the ownership of each poem you write.

This weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Heather Christle read from her debut book, The Difficult Farm. She sat at the microphone and proceeded to recite—Every. Single. Poem. It wasn’t just the fact that Christle was a Poet Who Memorized, it was that the poems became ours too. She read in a slightly monotone voice, a slight smile on her face. It complemented, if not elevated, her work. Mid-reading, I messaged My Friend Against Memorization, who is also a huge fan of Christle’s, just to let him know that one his favorite poets could be scratched off the list of Poets Who Have Taste. Just to let him know that, you know, maybe I was just a little bit right about something. He texted me back: Reynolds-1, Me-0.

  • CaptSnark

    It’s inevitable that poets reading their own work rarely if ever rise to the level of reading of which even a very mediocre actor would be capable. For one thing, as it’s their own work, they are self-conscious as to the particulars of its creation. For another, as it’s their own work, they tend, out of self-consciousness, to either over-dramatize (often with false notes) or veer to the other extreme and understate. For yet another, there is the division on the one hand of the ‘performance artists’ in which case the work matters little if at all, really, and, on the other the sustained self-conscious near-sing-song plangency of the infinitely sensitive infinitely self-aware and self-celbrating. Any actor, surely, would find the truth or the lack of it far more effectively, or the casting director would cheerfully cry out ‘Next!’

  • Christie Ann Reynolds

    Of course, the work in relationship to performance artists matters. My point is that the performance and how the work is performed is often considered before the form of the work on paper. An actor can perform a mediocre script brilliantly, but actors also choose scripts based on how well-written they are and how well-developed a character is written. I’m not sure if you are referring to the idea of poet as actor–because I’m surely not. I’m not looking for the big bang of a performance every time. I’m simply suggesting that reciting one’s work is beneficial to the work and the way it is read and the way it is received.

  • CaptSnark

    Milton or Dickinson would have been improved, then, if only they’d hit the circuit?

  • http://joannapenncooper.blogspot.com/ Joanna

    I feel similarly. I like to see how poets can engage an audience and make the poem a living thing. At the same time, I can’t be fully interested in the recitation of poems that I know I wouldn’t care about on the page. This is great: “But I do think, that if you can’t find something innate, something diamond and startling about a poet who delivers a poem, eyes locked to the audience, like a line drive to the heart, that you are missing one of the targets of poetry itself. Why keep all of it on the page? Why not give yourself up to the poem entirely?” I enjoyed this– thanks!

  • Christie Ann Reynolds

    CaptSnark—It has nothing to do with improvement and everything to do with an experience—an elevated experience. There are different kinds of experiences—private and public—and I make the argument for both. I’m simply making reference to the way a reading can be made amazing by the engagement of poet and audience. And yes, sometimes I wonder how Emily Dickinson would have sounded and yes, I sometimes wish I could hear her read.

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  • Siddiq

    Me too! Emily, and Eliot, and Joyce, and Rexroth, and Wheelwright, and… That Pennsound website is a real gem. It’s totally converted me to recitation – to the point that I’d only rarely want to read something that I could hear from the horses mouth, mainly out of technical interest.

  • http://profiles.google.com/elliot.knapp Elliot Knapp

    Great article, I really enjoyed this.  As someone who’s both a musician and a poet, I think memorization is pretty crucial–you wouldn’t be impressed if you went to a rock show and the musicians were reading off sheet music (and yet, somehow it’s acceptable in classical music).  Memorizing your poem allows you to actually engage the audience with eye contact, one of the basics of effective communication.  Finally,  having your poem memorized doesn’t obviate the importance of having it visually represented on a page–the two can coexist, and ideally they’ll be mutually enriching if the poem fulfills the potential of its art form.

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