Monday, May 12, 2014

Knowing By Heart~The Dynamics of Memorization

     The writer is almost completely blocked by the podium where she stands, shuffling papers, adjusting her glasses.  She's not sure what to read, and finally settles on what she prefaces as "something I jotted down on the train coming over." She keeps her eyes on the page, throughout, punctuated by on occasional plaintive look up at the audience at the end of a paragraph. Another 26 minutes of this, and the audience members have stopped looking at her, are surreptitiously deleting Emails on their droids, or escaping to the loo. The boyfriend who accompanied student Sally is darting her looks~he will NEVER agree to coming to a reading again.  The writer looks over at the host.  He is sitting in the front row, slightly to her right, a strained encouraging smile lock-jawed onto his face. She asks him, "Do I have time for another story?"  Groan.
     I once saw Philip Dacey come to the podium at a Passaic County Community College Poetry Center reading, with nothing in hand. He started speaking, and we soon realized, to our delight, that he had already launched into his first poem. For the next who-knows-how-long, we rode his poetry with him from joy to grief to nostalgia and back. Unfettered by paper, he had his whole program by heart, constantly engaging us with his eyes, his voice, his movements. We were disappointed when he stopped. When I decided to start doing readings, seven years ago, I vowed that, like Dacey, I would recite my poems~as in "recite: to repeat or utter aloud something rehearsed or memorized, esp. before an audience" (American Heritage College Dictionary).
     There was a time when there were so few books and no standardized tests, so students memorized poems, passages from the Bible, plays, songs, multiplication tables. We all had a mental Rolodex of phone numbers and practiced strategies for remembering names. I have often been delighted when people "of a certain age" will, as Mary Ellen did in an open, hold forth with "The Owl and the Pussycat" or reel off a Dickinson poem to reorganize and energize a conversation.  But with ready internet and speed-dialing, we have all lost our minds~that is, our capacity for memorizing, retaining, and accessing.
     We have a recital at the end of the semester, during which all of my students present something from their semester~enacting a Shakespearean scene, reading their original work, doing a multi-media clip of an Achebe story.  When I suggest that they might memorize their portion, they freak. 
     There are steps between the hermit behind the podium and flying the trapeze without a net.  Yesterday, my student poets were rehearsing for this year's recital.  Each person, in turn, positioned him- or herself at the front of the room. We dispensed with any podium, as it becomes a wall instead of a conduit. After a first reading of a poem, we considered how we might emulate what worked, thus building a repertoire of aspects for everyone to shape: hand gestures, eye contact, body movement; pacing, volume, articulation, use of silence.  At this point, we also noticed what didn't work in a poem, inspiring changes to titles, beginnings and endings, redundancies, and dead zones.     
      Crucially, we noticed the relationship between reader and the paper on which the poem was printed.  First, hands: Hold it down at waist level, and the audience is cut-off.  Hold it up as a mask to your face, and it's even worse. We experimented with holding the page off to the side. That literally provided a heart opening to the audience~a sense of expansiveness and connection, so important to reaching an audience. Many students are adopting that as a mode. 
       Next, eyes: so tethered were some poets to the page, that they read ever word, one at a time, as if they were first-graders new to reading, at all. Of course, there was no way to make or maintain eye contact with the audience, and it was painful to watch. I recommended flashing onto phrases and looking up, in between.  I showed them how I, who don't have their poems memorized, can retain whole lines at a time by this method. This was a revelation and eased the way. In some cases, students plan to relineate and change font sizes in their poems for easier visual groupings.
       As a reciter and performer, I am nourished and inspired by the eyes of audience members. Some, however, get a deer-in-headlights daze. One student recommended this relaxation method: think of the people as sitting on a toilet~then you won't be intimidated.  That was a LOL moment! But if looking into eyes is disorienting, simply looking at foreheads will engage the audience and relax the reader.
      Then, I went after memorizing.  Deanna was pinching her paper so hard that it crackled, and she was reading one word at a time.  
       "Give me the paper," I said.  She did.  I added, "OK. Now recite your poem."  
       "I can't," Deanna said, distressed.
       "I know," I said, "Do it anyway."
And she demurred with more insecurities, and I just kept saying, "I know.  Do it anyway."
And then she did.  A whole stanza, until she got rattled that she could and stopped.  But that stanza was so moving, her connection with us so profound, that we know she will come through for us all.
      There it is.  Drop the paper and remember what you remember.  You will notice, too, what works and what doesn't, as you do.  Many of the students are now memorizing their poems for the recital.
      In the seven years since I first got up to recite, grabbed hold of the podium, and walked it off stage, I have memorized over 150 poems and songs, and created four 90-minute performance sequences with them. I have learned the importance of rehearsing while I'm in different modes of motion~walking, driving, biking, swimming; queuing up; keeping myself awake while others drone on (sometimes at readings), and putting myself to sleep at night; and, of course, stage rehearsals. The more mistakes I make in process, the surer I'll be with a audience.  As I rehearse, I learn more about the poems and have had the best ideas for revision. The parts I have trouble retaining are worth revisiting for excision. Listy structures can be as boring on the page as in recitation. Through this process of memorizing for an audience, I learn how to more fully inhabit the poems and songs~how to embody them more deeply.  The "drop-outs" or "mistakes" I might make in performance are just opportunities to boost the work.  And who's to tell?
      Proviso: NEVER have the paper or a prompter (electronic or human) nearby during a recitation or performance, because it invites the old addiction to reading from the page~it's a crutch. "The medium," wrote Marshall McLuhan, "Is the message." Unmediated by the page, the poet merges with the poem. Remind yourself: I am the message.
      And, how much more exciting, for you and for your audience, when you walk to the front without sheaves in hand.  And everyone realizes, you are flying without a net!
© 2014 Susanna Rich


  1. during my class last Friday I assumed that I couldn't remember my poem. Dr. Rich took my paper and I though someone stole my safety net. Like I was falling to the ground and had no parashoot. but through it all she taught me that I new my poem, I knew my work I had self doubt. fear was what was stopping me from expressing my poem "MY DOLLY". fear of telling the truth, speaking out and allow the tears and hurt out. fear of crying in front of people when I really don't like to, fear of knowing the hurt in this poem was real and I haven't fully healed from it. finally I it started to flow and as it flowed it became painful but when it was over I realized that I still have some healing to go through and some work. with that I was free to cry in class and feel happy after words because I was able to let it go. if Dr. Rich didn't do this I wouldn't of been able to come to this realization and I thank her for that. Now I can move forward in life, with God and with Me. If it wasn't for Dr. Rich showing me these thing I don't think I would of truly healed and been able to recite this poem from heart this Thursday! THANK YOU DR. RICH!

  2. You are such a gracious and inspiring presence, Deanna!

  3. I think it took me about a month to memorize The Owl and the Pussycat way back in 7th grade English class. Of course I’ve retained it these 40+ years just so I could recite it for you!

    Nowadays (I’m starting to sound like my grandmother) there seem to be no rote memorization skills taught to our young people. Not so for some of us when we were that age. Everything these young people need is in their hand (or so they think) and available at the touch of a button or two, so why memorize anything? I know people who don’t even know their own phone numbers without looking it up. Really? Have some people gotten that lazy that they can’t remember anything without the Internet or a cell phone?

    Even though I have a cell phone with numbers programmed in for friends and family, I still dial it myself, to keep my brain active. It is rare that I don’t remember someone’s phone number once I’ve dialed it a couple of times. It’s not that difficult to remember.

    I think our media deprivation and sacred space worked very well to draw attention to verbally interact within our classroom. I had some classes where I know that the students weren’t necessarily even paying attention to the professor while they sat with their phones or computers in class. Checking FB and other websites has nothing to do with what is going on in the class. I don’t understand why some professors allow it. It’s a distraction to me, and I’m sure it is to the professor, too.

    I appreciated our media-free classroom. Making new friends and talking to them is one form of rote memorization—I will remember facts about the person I talked to and their name more readily when I frequently use it in speaking with them or to get their attention.

  4. Thank you, Mary Ellen, for your validation and insights! I will so miss our Friday morning family of poets. You were SO our Mom and Sister~

  5. I recently recited The Owl and the Pussycat for a couple of children and thought of you. I sent you an email to your Kean address just yesterday with a poem I wrote for the CLMOOC. Hope your summer is going well. Take care. ~ME

  6. Lola Haskins closed her eyes and recited several poems from memory. No paper. I was very impressed. I've memorized only a few poems (3?) in recent years and they didn't stay memorized, but the process was more than interesting. And informative.
    Thank you!

  7. Dr. Rich,
    I 100% agree with what you’re preaching! A lot of students today don’t have to memorize any kind of literature for school. If I try to tell a student to memorize something I’d probably get a response like, “Why would I memorize it when I can just look it up online when I need it?” I mean I don’t know about you but there comes a time when memorization becomes a great thing, like knowing my phone number when I forget my ShopRite card to still get the discounts. After this post I’ve realized the beauty that could come from memorizing my own poems. The way I can have my body and pauses while speaking say the words more than having an index card in front of me ever could. I also never thought of reading my poem aloud to see how it sounds off the paper. Lately I’ve been writing and practicing them in my head, which is probably why you can’t feel everything I write, because it’s not in tune with the people around me senses or feelings. I feel that taking my poetry off the paper and out loud could be a new insight on how to create better poetry. I am nervous to recite my poems at the end of the semester, but at the same time I am ready and excited for the challenge.
    -Alessandra Finis

  8. Dr. Rich,

    I agree that memorization is a tool that all writers should use. I, myself, get hesitant when I have to memorize something. But as you said, it is so much more beautiful to listen to a poet recite without looking back and forth at the page. I listen to quite a few spoken words a day and find myself fascinated by the individual in front of the camera reciting from the heart and mind.

    I find your last paragraph of the blog inspiriting to me, "Remind yourself: I am the message. And, how much more exciting, for you and for your audience, when you walk to the front without sheaves in hand. And everyone realizes, you are flying without a net!" It really does feel as an accomplishment when I can walk onto a stage mighty and proud of my work and the fact that I took the time to read it so many times, I memorized it. -- I also must mention that I had to reedit that last part there. I had been writing using the word, YOU. OH NO!

    Thank you for this insight. It brought me back to thinking about the 5 canons of rhetoric, and how memory is starting to become obsolete. I must mention this blog post to my professor who I was working on my rhetorical analysis with.

    - Paige Bollman