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A few weeks ago, fellow Microblogger Richard Leis had a reading coming up and he asked about memorizing poems. I chimed in with a few thoughts. But I got rather rambly, and I severely edited my reply before posting it.

Smokey thought I should convert it into a real live blog post, and save it from being a reply lost in the endlessly receding timeline. So here it is, along with at least some of those further divagations added back in.

There are lots of different ways to memorize things, but if you haven’t done much memorizing before and you want to quickly get “off-book” as the actors say, I’d recommend a variation of the following:

First, copy out each poem as prose and break it into smallish chunks that will sit in your mind as discrete phrases. If you already compose in something resembling stanzas or verses, you could go with that, I suppose — but longer phrases sometimes span shorter stanzas, and sometimes a single stanza may be several phrases long. So I suggest ignoring whatever line- and stanza-breaks you originally composed in, and instead look for phrases that don’t require more than one or two lungfuls of air to say aloud.

Second, copy out each poem by hand several times, reciting it aloud as you write. You’ll start to see it and hear it in your mind. Third, look and listen for a few prominent words in each phrase. There should probably be no more than two or three, and they’ll start to jump out at you on each reread/rewrite. These are the beats you’ll move between as you walk through the poem. So you’ll really be memorizing the progression from keyword to keyword, beat to beat.

Fourth, there’s no shame in having cards with you — especially if you’re hoping to memorize a lot of material in a short time. So, copy the keywords down onto index cards. Keep each card sparse, only a few phrases — say, ten or fifteen words — per card at most. Otherwise your brain will expect to see the whole poem there, and might choke when it can’t fill in the missing bits. You want to rely on the cards, but not depend on them.

Think of it this way. Instead of a page filled with text, you’ll have a little index card with only a handful of words — so when you glance down, your eyes won’t be swimming around looking for your place on a crowded page of poetry, but simply spotting the next keyword, and you’ll be on your way. You’ll be able to keep your eyes up and out at the audience longer, and your page-glances will be quicker and more economical. The audience may not even notice, and may even forget you’re not reciting completely from memory.

Okay, so let’s say I wrote a sonnet. I think it’s pretty good, and I want to recite it from memory. I’ve copied it out a bunch, I’ve recited it a dozen or so times, and I’ve got it mostly down. But just in case of mental vapor-lock in front of the vast throng of my adoring fans, I might have two index cards with me that I can glance at — you know, to kick-start my brain if I’m distracted by all the screaming, helpless weeping, and errant under-garments being flung onstage.

So, my index cards might look something like this:

Card 1:
summer’s day … lovely … temperate
Rough winds … summer’s lease
too short … too hot … fair from fair

Card 2:
chance … changing course
eternal summer … possession … fair
Death brag … shade
men breathe … eyes see

Also, if you decide not to memorize your poems, you may want to at least consider completely memorizing parts of the poems, to strengthen the impact of the performance.

Reading a poem aloud is a performance. Each person who recites a poem is interpreting how that poem can be performed; the meaning and impact of the poem shifts depending on each interpretation, each performer.

I wish more poets listened to their own poems as things composed for the human voice, the human lung, the human ear. I think it’s crucial for us to engage in the orality of our work throughout the composition process; we can discover patterns and rhythms that might otherwise remain hidden from a purely visual engagement.

But then, my bias — probably because I was a musician and actor before I was a composer of texts — is to think of poems principally (though by no means exclusively) as transcripts of oral/auditory events. Sometimes, in fact — when I’m in a particularly judgmental, even cranky mood — I find myself thinking: if a poem cannot be read aloud, then it’s not a poem. Sure, it’s still a language event, and (potentially) every bit as valid a work of art as anything else composed of language (story, play, song lyric, novel, oracular utterance, news article, magic spell, essay, judicial ruling, etc), but it’s not a poem. Conversely, anything that is composed for the human ear, a human’s lung capacity, and a human’s appetite for rhetoric — that can be called a poem, or at least “poetic.”

But like I said, that’s just me when I feel like I’m reading prose that’s been chopped up into lines for the sake of appearances. I’m not sure it’s fair to draw such a hard line through the definition of “poem.”

Hope this helps — break a leg!

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