Should You Memorise Your Poems?
There are two schools of thought concerning whether or not you should memorise your poetry, with some convinced of its benefits and others believing you never have to memorise your poems. In this essay I will look at where the current ideas of poets memorising their poems comes from and its pros and cons.
Even though memorising poetry is now more associated with certain branches of contemporary poetry, such as slam poetry, it was initially used as a way to ‘learn’ or become familiar with literature in schools, before this was phased out for the current trend of analysing poetry. The author Salman Rushdie said that he feels it’s a shame that children don’t memorise poetry at schools anymore and that he’s glad that he did. However, the kind of poetry that he was memorising at school and the kind that performance poets are memorising now are most likely very different.
Memorising your poems can be beneficial, as once you know your poems inside and out you can focus more on their delivery. Delivery is crucial during a poetry performance. This doesn’t mean that you have to perform your poem in a specific way or be grandiose when you do it—you may have a quiet voice or be a reserved person naturally and this is fine—but once you know your poem, you’re free to worry about it less and concentrate on delivering it more, and this will show in your body language. You’ll also be more aware of the audience. If you’re concentrating on reading, even the most beautiful poem can be lost through uncertainty.
It’s also worth noting that when memorising your poems, it’s not just important to learn the words in the poem. It’s just as important to learn the pauses in the poem and where the stresses occur. I found this recently myself when recording a poem for an audio anthology; without the correct stresses the meaning of my poem was less clear. Memorising your poems makes you stop and consider language and syntax.
Reading from paper can become a crux, in the same way that a script can be for an actor. It’s a safety blanket, it’s something to do with your hands. Removing the need for paper can be liberating.
One of the greatest problems with memorising your poems, that is so great a problem it seems to me to counterbalance a number of pros, rather than just one, is that memorising leads to overacting. Ironically, overacting a poem leads to the same problems as hiding behind a printout of your poem: the words and message of your poem are lost, only this time in gesticulation, an unnecessary voice or inauthentic accent. All of these things may intimidate or irritate an audience. Above all it’s important to be yourself when reading poetry out loud to others.
As a side note, myself and a few other poets I know have noticed a trend of poets performing in heavy accents, but not their own, which is bizarre and unrequired. If a poem is good, it can’t help but be a good performance piece, proving you aren’t too timid or nervous.
Memorising a poem can be a great goal to have, and lead to a sense of achievement. I have seen this sense of achievement in poets myself. However, I wonder whether in this sense of achievement, the actual goal of writing a good poem is lost. A good performance is a good performance, but it doesn’t arbitrarily make a poem good.
Memorising poetry may be unnecessary. The act of doing so suits different kinds of poetry, for example, those with a theatre background or those who prefer slam or performance poetry may feel the need to memorise their poetry more than those that write more page poetry and are focused on their own publications and submitting to journals. Perhaps it depends on how important the written word is to you. Therefore, it’s important to know that memorising poetry isn’t a requirement and poets shouldn’t be misled in thinking that it is or that they are any less of a poet for not doing so.
A performance of a poem isn’t just about memorising or not memorising poetry, it’s about everything you do, who you are, your image as a poet and your banter with the audience in between your poems. I know a poet who engages beautifully with an audience because she has mastered the above, without actually memorising much of her poetry.
In conclusion, I would recommend that people try memorising a few of their poems. You may find that it’s what you want to do from now on, or that you discover elements to your poetry that you didn’t before. As a poet I think it’s wise to try everything and have different skills. However, I wouldn’t recommend that people worry about memorising all their poems, especially as their back-catalogue increases, or feel that it’s synonymous with being a poet.
A performance is ultimately about bringing the best out of your poem. This should be your starting point when considering whether or not to memorise your poem.
Finally, this debate also comes down to personal preference. For example, I don’t like to read my poems off my phone when performing. That’s not to say that I don’t do it, or that the poems on my phone aren’t exactly the same. If anything, there are technological and environmental benefits to reading from my phone, however, something about doing so irks me. Regardless of whether or not you choose to memorise your poems, it’s important for all poets to remain tolerant of the methods, preferences and processes of each other.
© 2019 Setareh Ebrahimi
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.