To read or to recite? This blog treats reading as normative for public performances of poetry among contemporary English-language poets, but for many in the spoken word community — to say nothing of poets in other cultures — recitation is much more highly prized. Spoken word performers sometimes say that if you don’t memorize a poem you can’t fully internalize it, and therefore can’t give it the kind of physical, whole-body expression that audiences best respond to. I’ve seen spoken word performers live, as well as on YouTube, and I have to say I’ve been extremely impressed by what they can do. Unlike some of my collaborators here at Voice Alpha, I do still feel there’s a place for dramatic delivery of poetry, though I think it’s a lot harder to pull off than a relaxed, natural reading.
But I’m not going to start memorizing my poems, for the simple reason that I suffer from what Harold Bloom dubbed the anxiety of influence — from myself. I worry about wearing such deep ruts in my imagination that going off-trail and exploring new terrain would prove increasingly difficult. Eventually, everything I wrote would begin to sound alike. Maybe that will happen anyway, but I don’t want to give it a boost.
Fundamentally, my poems are made to be read. A lot of spoken word is created first and foremost as oral texts, and the focus on communicating with a live audience does sometimes (often?) militate against the kind of ambiguity and allusive subtlety I prize in poetry. I wonder how much we more cerebral, page-oriented poets can really learn from our spoken word brethren. It seems to me we have rather different expectations of our audiences, to begin with. People at traditional poetry readings have to enjoy being to some extent lost, for example, since there’s so much you can’t get out of a poem just hearing it for the first time.
I want to emphasize that I am not trying to suggest rules for anyone else here; I’m speaking purely for myself. For example, I’m a pretty self-confident public speaker and rarely experience any kind of stage fright, so I don’t need the help in avoiding stumbles that memorizing might provide. I really admire people with good memories, but alas, I’m not one of them, and every time I write I have to struggle to make sure I’m not committing unconscious plagiarism. I don’t need any more ready-made phrases in my head!
I’d love to hear from people with contrary experiences and impressions. It seems to me there’s a strong possibility that I am quite wrong about all this.