Reciting your own poems from memory is for supernerds, or the worst project of my life

Reciting your own poems from memory is for supernerds, or the worst project of my life

by Ben Fama on March 30, 2010

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in Aesthetics,Art,Poetry and Poetics

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Concerning all the recent discussions about memory, recitation, etc, I thought I would try it in my own way. I should disclose that I never recite my own poems from memory at readings. I think it is corny, weird, it makes me uncomfortable, and frankly, to spend that much time memorizing your own work is kind of sick.

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I want to rebel against my own ideas.

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I tried to write a poem entirely in my head and memorize it. I would never write it down. All editing would take place in my head. Line for line. The entire building and reconstruction could only exist abstractly. No writing as an aid. I would memorize the final poem. I would recite the poem and that is how it could live.

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This is how it went: First I had a few lines, but I could only get at it by starting from the beginning over again each time. I imagined the line breaks and pauses to help remember it. I decided maybe I would to add three lines a day. I would imagine the form entirely in my mind. Maybe 12-16 lines total. A good length lyrical poem. It would be difficult.

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I felt I was cheating. Picturing a form, with lines, line breaks, and any visual form seemed to me a kind of writing. Since I wasn’t marking anything down, why should there be “lines?” It’s just words in my head. There was also no need for form. When you recite a poem that you’ve seen on the page, imagining the stanzas certainly helps, but for this particular project (and yes it was becoming a project and yes I hate projects!) I felt that if I pictured lines, or stanzas, then that would essentially be the same as writing it on paper, because those forms are meant to see written and seen as a way of organizing thoughts on a page. To be true to the imaginative strength of the mind, it would just have to be a string, the rhythm of which would intuitively generate itself as I repeatedly said the poem allowed or thought it.

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To order these words, these thoughts, I began imagining the actually words. Not just the sound. I saw the words in sequence. But to fix the words in an order seemed to me to always constitute a kind of writing. I felt I was cheating. It was also the kind of writing I could not get space from. It would be impossible to reflect upon the poem if I constantly had to carry it around. It would never sit and get cold. I could never see how shitty parts of it were and try and mend it. I got upset. It was becoming a drag on all accounts.

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I decided that the only way this poem would be good, and interesting, and truly exist on the level, was if I created it anew from nothing every time I recited it. I would have to make up a new poem everytime. That would keep it from becoming this totally limiting enterprise. Because to go from memory is so safe…the only danger is forgetting, and thats more of a social anxiety than actually having anything to do with whats at stake in the greater art of it. Because to memorize my own thoughts, as megalomaniacal and funny an idea as it was, was really just writing another poem, and it wouldn’t be good. I am very happy to have moved on from this ludicrous idea.

  • David

    The fact that reciting a poem from memory has fallen out of favor speaks more to the idea that qualities like meter, rhyme, and prosody as a whole as thought of differently. I can imagine memorizing and reciting Emily Dickinson poems written in iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter as being pleasurable both because it is a feat of accomplishment, but also because there is a strange echo in following the cadence of Amazing Grace, as if one were paying homage to the lineage of the word, one a Christian hymn and another written by a spinster locked in her room. Here the act of memorizing a poem is less megalomaniacal and more the desire to maintain (renew?) a melody or rhythm before it is lost like some dead language.

    Recently I commented on a group of unusual spaces in a poem by a friend and he offered me a description of using blank space as caesura, a term that even after years of reading poems I had no idea of. After a quick visit to wikipedia I was amazed at what at what I found and how this quality is not considered more often in contemporary poetry. It made me think about how much slapdash poetry written in a moment of inspiration would be improved if the writer took the time to memorize a few of the lines and consider their composition.

    A few years ago I went to a Silver Jews concert and their set opened with Berman singing O Captain! My Captain! set to music and I thought how much and how little had changed in the 100+ years since Whitman wrote it.

    I guess my point is that reciting your poems can be obsessive or megalomaniacal, but if you perform it as a way to meditate on the methods/techniques of both your own writing and work written before can it really be such a bad thing?

  • Christie Ann

    Thanks for your post David.

    Why is it such a waste of time to know a few of your own poems by heart?? Poems that are “finished” and that you feel confident about publishing or reading aloud? Why not? Does it hurt your poem? I don’t see how trying to “write” and “edit” a poem in your head is at all like writing on paper and editing and then memorizing it–which is what I referred to in the past. It isn’t about trying to make stuff up as you go…and since that is what you explain above, I think you should try to think about memorizing one of your own poems. It doesn’t take that long to do in the first place. It definitely isn’t a PROJECT. It’s a natural act–when the words have already come from you–to know some of them by heart. If you are connected with your work and read it several times to continue hearing it and thinking about it–eventually, it just stays put inside of your head. You probably have more memorized than you think. And it isn’t about memorizing it for the hell of it or to say oh, I know this many poems by heart, or limiting a poem’s ability to be changed or transformed. It’s not project–it is just the progress of the poem. It isn’t about just placing words in your head and that’s the only way they live…it is about taking something you have written and being able to give it a double life. (Every time a singer performs a song…duh…memorized. By heart. From paper. And Ear.) You don’t have to be able to do it yourself or understand it, but it definitely isn’t some nerdy project reserved for people who have nothing better to do than repeat the same words to themselves over and over again. Also, you weren’t wrong to imagine “lines” because a strong reader would pay attention to enjambment and word placement while reading aloud in the same way a strong writer is attentive to those same aspects on the page.

  • http://jessiecarty.com Jessie Carty

    I could probably recite one of my poems from memory but the main reason I don’t try to memorize my work for presentation is that I like to have a large pile of work to pull from at any given reading that responds to what other people are reading.

    I’m still tempted, however, to try this project as well :)

  • Desmond Swords

    In the bardic schools of Britain and Ireland that existed for over 1000 years, which evolved directly out of druidic practice, the trainee poet had to compose their poems mentally, in their heads, before committing it to parchment. The corpus of the 12 year course boiled down to 350 tales they had to memorize and be able to recite at the drop of a hat.

    To say you ‘think it is corny, weird, it makes me uncomfortable, and frankly, to spend that much time memorizing your own work is kind of sick’ is a joke, yeah?

    Reading between the lines, one could as easily say you find it too difficult and intellectually challenging, and if it makes you uncomfortable, memorising your own poetry, maybe you should get a different hobby, one less taxing, like watching DVD’s and playing video games.

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