If civilisation collapses, (like it did in The Walking Dead), what will happen to your poems?

OK, you won’t care at first, but after the dust settles and you have some time to kill around the camp fire in the evening, it might come in handy to have a few poems that you can recite to your fellow sufferers, y’know, like they did in the old days.

Memorising poems is something that lately I have come to think is a good thing to do. When I was a teenager I memorised a few poems – it was to do with exams, but even so I’m not sure why I thought it necessary to memorise completely, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, a ridiculously long poem, I think it probably seemed a more attractive proposition than actually revising, (anyway, decades later, even though I haven’t thought of it once since, I can still remember the first stanza). However, as I got older I started to believe that I couldn’t remember things very well. I also thought that filling my memory up with things like phone numbers and random poems and so on was a bad idea because I might need the space for more important material. I decided a while back to stop believing idiotic things and so I’ve started to memorise poems again.

What surprised me is how easy it actually is, and it’s not just the rhyming metered poems that are easy either. The trick is to learn the whole thing rather than take it line by line. So first you must understand it or gain some kind of understanding of it, then just read it a few times and try to recall it, this takes a day or two, but only for a few minutes every now and then, it’s important to refresh regularly, but each refresher only takes a little thinking time. At first it will be all wrong with just random lines all over the show, but before you know it, you have it, and once it’s there, as long as you recite it from time to time, it will be there forever. It’s an enormously satisfying enterprise, firstly because poems are great and I love having them in my head, but also, there is power in knowing that you have control of your memory and proof of its infinite capacity.

Another thing I realised was that I know a lot of my own poems by heart – this has never really involved any conscious effort, but just seems to happen.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about memory and I’m always thinking about poems, and I’ve started to wonder, given that poetry originally was an oral art form:

a) why we poets don’t memorise our poems, and
b) why we are allowed to get away with it!

We have all been to readings where poets hold the book in front of their face or look down, never once taking their eyes from the page, and that’s not good for anyone. We feel bad for them, not critical because it’s easy to understand, though sadly we hear less of what they have to say because we are too busy feeling their pain. Public speaking, after all, is one of the biggest fears, (glossophobia – from the Greek, meaning ‘fear of the tongue’), but it can be overcome, and it is certainly worth overcoming if you are a poet, because fear is not a good feeling. Readings are definitely more enjoyable when you can relax a little and look at your audience. The bottom line is that it is very hard to engage an audience if you don’t look at them and it’s easier to look if you can deliver a few lines at a time from memory.

Of course I realize that ‘performance poets’ do learn their poems, but I’m focusing here on the other kind, the kind that I am. What is that? Just a poet or a page poet or an academic poet – I don’t know, but definitely written poet first, performer of poems second. The poems don’t have to be read out loud to an audience ever – but it’s nice if they are. I also know that some people will feel strongly that poets don’t need to learn their poems, because it’s not about performance, leave that to the slam poets, and I get that, but what I don’t understand is why poets don’t want to learn them.

So, back to the question, why don’t more poets memorise their poems? Actors, singers, even politicians can memorise their material. On the whole it is unusual for performers of any kind to take their notes on stage, (Mark E Smith and Shane MacGowan are exceptions), but we wouldn’t let anyone else get away with it.

One poet who doesn’t take his poems on stage is Matthew Welton, and I’ve always been impressed by the way he recites his work, empty-handed, looking off into the distance for his poem, which he retrieves and delivers word perfect. It’s a brave thing to do, because no one wants to screw up in front of an audience (small though it might be at most poetry readings). I’m not that brave, and even though I can pretty much recite all my poems, I’d never get up in front of an audience without the text in front of me, I just couldn’t risk it. This is fear, pure and simple, fear of forgetting would make me forget, and so having the quivering paper there is security. I think I actually prefer the poem to make an appearance on stage, it’s a reminder of the written nature of the beast and it gives your hands a job, but having it there and reading every single word from it aren’t the same thing, checking in with the poem occasionally is acceptable I think. Or is it? I was doing a reading recently, and I had my pamphlet all labeled in order, and I was rustling through it like an incompetent, and really I didn’t need to find the page because I knew all the poems anyway, and when I did find the page I didn’t read from it, so why bother with the Mr Bean routine?

Anyway, paper or no paper, maybe, as performers of our work we need to get more intimate with our words. Perhaps we ought to seriously work on our recall and commit what’s important to us to memory and if we do we won’t ever have to worry about hard drives, hard copies, flat batteries, flash drives, crashing laptops, jammed printers, clouds, burning of books or other miscellaneous apocalyptic scenarios. In summary, try harder poets, half of you are geniuses anyway, so just learn the poems.

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2 thoughts on “If civilisation collapses, (like it did in The Walking Dead), what will happen to your poems?

  1. I think you are dead right to ask why we poets rely on a crutch at poetry readings. Almost everyone does it. I’ve seen some well known poets do it very badly, fumbling with the book, muttering to themselves, even dropping the folder full of poems. Pathetic. Should be booed off the stage.

    I remember Paul Farley starting a reading by reciting the first couple of poems from memory. Then he stopped and turned to his book. His reason, which is quite interesting, was that he noticed that seeing the whites of the poet’s eyes seemed to make the audience feel uncomfortable. Maybe that was just an excuse because he couldn’t remember any more anyway!

    Matthew Welton was the Wednesday night reader at an Arvon course I was on last year. I’d seen him read a few times before (once is St Ann’s church in Manchester when he performed the whole of The Book of Matthew) and find him captivating. At Arvon though he forgot the words, so someone in the group tossed a copy of his book to him (he didn’t have one himself). Great laughter of course, but how brave is that, to turn up without a copy of your work!

    There’s a scene in Bright Star, the film about Keats (actually Fanny Brawne), where he starts to recite a poem at a dinner party, but forgets the words and gives up. I find it hard to believe this was a historical fact, more the scriptwriter pandering to audience expectation. So the question to be asked is this: has it become culturally expected that poets will read their work from a script? Dunno.

    I started learning Shakespeare’s sonnets a few weeks ago. I love the density of the language and the sounds of the words. The American critic Helen Vendler wrote a book of commentaries on them about ten years ago (The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets). In the intro she says that she learned all 154 sonnets to help her become deeply connected to them. I can see her point. My reason for learning them is to convince myself that my crap memory is not a sign of impending oblivion.

    • Thanks for your comments Keith. What Paul Farley said is interesting, I wondered about how the audience are affected by the way a poet chooses to read, but as long as you don’t fix your gaze psychotically on one person I think they aren’t going to feel uncomfortable. Matthew Welton doesn’t look at anyone which is another way of doing it. My own decision has been to know the poems as best I can, (unless it’s a new one then I have to read), but to have the poem in front of me in case I mess up. The danger of having no text, is to be too theatrical: pacing around and gesturing wildly and over-enunciating everything – for me this takes something away from the poem. Welton definitely doesn’t do this, his readings are very natural and effective.

      I love that you are learning Shakespeare’s sonnets, I would imagine that assimilating the structure, sound and metre of them will make writing sonnets easier. The sonnet you wrote the other week was really good, maybe that’s why(?). It’s suprising what we can remember when we make the decision – I was looking at ‘The Waste Land’ the other day and thinking could it be done – but who has time for that, not me.

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