Lost For Words: Do readers need to memorise poems?

Lagan Online editor Colin Dardis asks whether it is fair to expect poets to dispense with the page, and recite from memory.

Whenever we go to see a play, or watch a band perform, we expect the actors and musicians to know the work. We don’t see scripts in hand, or cue sheets on stands, constantly being referred to. Standard practice dictates that memorisation is key. But should this be the same at poetry readings?

A ‘poetry reading’ can of course mean different things: open mics, book readings, slam nights, writers’ groups meetings, etc. In some of these, it is perfectly acceptable to read from the page, book, or electronic device. However, with spoken word or performance poetry, there can be an expectation that poets need to memorise their work. I’m concerned that there is a prevalent mindset from event organisers and audiences that memorisation equals strong poetry, whereas reading off the page equates to weakness, and even laziness on the part of the performer.

We know that many people struggle with short-term memory. People can have difficulties in memorising their poems due to mental health issues, side effects of medication, acquired brain injuries, PTSD, social anxiety, dementia or challenges with learning, or simply nerves. So I hate seeing poetry slams that demand poets memorise rather than read off the page. It’s an exclusive, discriminatory practice, and needs to stop.

Of course, this is not to take away from those people who can memorise, and deliver exceptionally. If you are capable of doing so, then there is no reason why you should halt. However, poetry slams and spoken word open mics need to be open to all people of all abilities. Judges & audiences should allow for poets who need the page and can still read competently and clearly. We shouldn’t seek to penalise and restrict, but instead encourage and support poets of all abilities. It doesn’t make sense that poor memory is seen to be akin to poor writing or poor delivery. That’s not to say that reading from the page guarantees a great delivery: you still need to work on your oratory and declamation. There’s no use having the page at all if you half-mutter your words.

I struggle with memory myself, and the way I see it is, I could struggle for hours and days to memorise a poem for a reading, or I could use that time more effectively to write, edit and send out my work. I wanted to know if other poets felt the same, so I put out my initial thoughts on social media. Below is feedback from some of the writers who responded.

Paul McNamara, spoken word poet and dramatist: “I know of many poets who have problems memorising; even the great slam poet Shane Koyczan can no longer perform by memory after an accident. If that had happened earlier in his career he would not have gotten the same opportunities. I do think there are some merit in this in the competition scene though. I find ‘slam poetry’ in the sense of performing as opposed to reading a different art form in many ways. I don’t think anyone should be discriminated against but I find the art of performing and reading to be quite different (neither better but different) I can understand competitions wanting to separate them at times so as to focus on different things.

“Many argued the poetry that is spoken would be far inferior to that which is written or read. The critic Harold Bloom once called slam poetry the death of art. Poet T.S Elliot believed any reading of a poem should be done in a monotone voice so as to not distract from the words. The dangers here seem to lie in people constantly trying to justify the one is better than the other instead of accepting the beauty in the different styles of each method. I think even within the slam world as it is know there are problems with the idea that ‘memorisation equals strong poetry’ as focus can shift from writing to only performance. While the ideal in current slam is a balance great performances can often hide poor or undeveloped writing.”

John Moynes, 2013 Leinster Slam Poetry Champion and the Lingo Festival Laureate 2015: I stopped playing some gigs because of that. I can do an hour of stand up without notes, but I can’t do the same show twice in a row. With poetry I need to get the poem precisely right, so I carry it in my hand.”

Siobhan Curely, editor of SHIFT: “I struggle even with reading off a page, partly nerves and partly because i have massive problems following the written word these days. Remembering is a foreign land. Lots of people get so nervous they’d have bother remembering their own names. I think that’s particularly a problem for young people, because just one ‘disaster’ could put them off every trying again (speaking from personal experience).”

David Braziel, poet and multiple slam winner: “I’m glad there are all kinds of poetry competitions with lots of different rules. If someone wants to run a night where everyone has to stand on one leg to read I’d say good luck (I wouldn’t enter – lousy balance). There are competitions for micropoems, for sonnets, for chap books, for video poems and all sorts. Not every event can be accessible or cater for everyone. Of course I would say this as someone who memorises poetry – but that isn’t “easy” for me – it’s a knack and it takes a lot of time and effort to do. I could get annoyed that the Tour de France won’t let me use my moped – or I could go find a moped race and try my luck.”

Phil Lynch, poet: “Speaking personally, I think there’s perhaps a distinction to be made between the oral performance of poetry, whether read or from memory, and slam poetry competitions (the emphasis being on competition), which is essentially a game with rules. There should be no exclusion from readings/performances/open mics or whatever. When it comes to slam competitions, the rules in operation for the competition apply to all competitors, at least until they are changed!” [In response to a suggestion from Eamon Mag Uidhir that competitive events should have a category of ‘read poetry’ for those who can’t perform from memory:] “It’s probably down to the organisers to an extent (like house rules in poker!) although ‘slam poetry competition’ is a ‘thing’ that tends to follow a pretty similar format (and rules) internationally. My main distinction is that rules-based competition is one thing and competitors have to follow the rules (like in any ‘sport’) but open mics and the like are a completely separate thing and should not be in any way exclusive as to how a participant presents their work.

What do you think? Are you a poet that struggles with memory? Would you rather see a poem memorised rather than read? Have you have a positive or negative reading experience affected by memory? Let us know in the comments field below.

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