Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

To read or to recite?


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.

Author: Dave Bonta

I'm the author of several small, odd books, including Breakdown: Banjo Poems, Words on the Street: An Inaction Comic, and Odes to Tools, but my real work is at my literary blog Via Negativa. I'm the editor and publisher of Moving Poems, a webzine showcasing videopoetry and poetry film. And I've been a dedicated if somewhat unorthodox homebrewer for more than 20 years.

29 thoughts on “To read or to recite?

  1. Some poems almost call to be recited like the first elegy of Rilke Duinio Elegies….

    I think there are advantages to both. I find that when one memorizes a poem and recites it, the audience is more impressed by the act of memorization than they are about the work. That can be a draw back.

    Sometimes reciting a poem allow the reader to engage more with the audience. The rule of thumb I use is if the poem is more intimate, I read it….allows a more comfortable space for the audience. If the poem is more narrative or historical, or if there is a dramatic element to the piece I will tend to recite it.

    • I was using “recitation” in the narrow sense of speaking from memory, but it sounds as if, for you, there’s a strong implication for delivery style. (I guess I did kind of imply that with the last sentence of my first paragaraph, didn’t I?) To turn it around: it is possible to give a more dramatic delivery without memorizing a poem in some sense? But as Margaret’s comment below implies, there may be a lot more to learning poems than the simplistic “read vs. recite” dichotomy I was proposing.

  2. I do a lot of poetry performance – both my own and the poetry of others – through The TypewriterGirls, the poetry and performance art troupe that I am a part of, and we both read and memorize poems. Memorization, for us, is absolutely essential when the poem is not simply being read but also being performed. My partner Crystal and I have performed with bassists and accordianists, done acrobatics with our poetry, and staged poems as mini plays/pieces of performance art. In these cases it would have looked sloppy to have the poem in front of us on paper, and it would have taken away from the performance as a whole. I can also honestly say that having a poem by Gary Snyder, Hugo Ball, or Diane di Prima memorized has never lead me to plagiarize any of them. I think learning great poetry can, instead, be extremely good for a poet, putting the rhythms and deftness of language into our heads. Also, it’s a great party trick to be able to spout out a random poem on command.

    However, if I am simply going to be standing at a microphone in front of an audience and reading my poetry (or someone else’s) without any additional performative element, I am much more likely to read from the page. Now, this is at least part laziness (though I like to know my poem well enough that I can spend more time looking at the audience and less time with my nose in the paper), but it is also due to the fact that, if I am not doing something with my body I am much more likely to freeze or place a work incorrectly, and if all the audience has to interpret my work is my reading, I want to be absolutely certain that I am reading precisely what I wrote.

    I do think that more poets should memorize, or rather, learn their work. There’s an awful lot of monotone paper-staring going on at readings and it would be great if we could be familiar enough with our poetry to at least avoid that problem. Right now I only have the poetry of others completely memorized – one of my goals for the near future is to memorize a couple of my own poems, but when I do that, I will also have performance in mind.

    As for trouble with memorization, I’ve been pretty heavily working on memorization for the past 5 years (I perform in sketch comedy, too – it’s not all poems!). I used to think that I was terrible at memorization, but 5 years of practice and I can memorize 15+ pages in a matter of days. If you work at it, it really does get a LOT easier.

    • “memorize, or rather, learn their work”
      This sounds like an important distinction. I definitely believe in learning a work well enough to be able to look at the audience most of the time, though I also think sharing one or two just-written poems can also add value to a reading. Maybe you’re right that my memory isn’t as bad as I tend to think, considering that I learn my poems well enough just in the process of writing and revising them to be able to read them without slavish dependency on the page.

      Maybe the distinction between reading and recitation isn’t as hard and fast as I make it sound, and it’s more of a continuum or spectrum of learning methods. (What about, for example, jazz poets who may refer to a printed text, but may also know the work well enough to extemporize in an improvisational way?)

      Anyway, this is exactly the kind of feedback we were hoping for. All very interesting. Thanks!

  3. Very interesting post, Dave. I too have trouble memorizing, but I see the value. At the very least, it would allow more natural eye contact with the audience, even if a reader still had the page as “back-up.” I have started recording the poems I plan to read and listening to them several times before – this helps me to partially memorize, anyway, although I have never done a reading completely from memory.

    I like Chris’s distinction between intimate and narrative work – I think that may be a good rule of thumb for starting to choose which poems may be better recited. But I also understand your feeling of wariness about the patterns that memorizing your work could create.

    And, on a much lighter note, memorizing would prevent the inevitable “reading double chin” if anyone takes a photo of you at a reading. Chin up, everyone! :)

  4. I think that reciting a poem offers subtle differences to the performance of poetry than does reading from the page. When one reads one is more consciously aware of the layout, the line breaks; and punctuation which is more ‘formal’. I believe that this does affect the performance. Poetry read from the page is chained to that subtle thing that happens when the author chooses to use a dash rather than a semi-colon, for instance, or a pause at the end of a line that has no value other than a visual clue.
    Reciting poetry, on the other hand, is more likely to soften those things and bring about a more natural vocal expression. It can also allow for the opposite, a highly stylized reading where ‘performance’ associates the performer with the poem more.
    Recited poetry can be confrontational, intimate or even flirtatious but it always seems to contain implicit participation of the audience. Reading from the page allows for a more passive and personal expression of poetry, I believe.

    • It sounds as if you’re saying that learning a poem for recitation can in and of itself inculcate many if not most of the habits of good public reading that we are trying to promulgate here at Voice Alpha.

      • I would say, yes, Dave. Mind you, ‘reading’ has a wealth of benefits too. I rather like hearing readers recite parts of the work they are performing and read others. It can be less intense than a full recital?
        In music one can follow the manuscript/score and then ‘let loose’ in parts of the music that are most appropriate for free expression. I rather like the energy that the combination of reading and reciting can illicit!

  5. Memorizing poems seems to be very much a part of performance poetry. It’s part of the delivery style, to be able to move freely and speak (as opposed to recite which may also involve memorization) the poem to the audience. There’s an element of drama, of theater to this kind of delivery. Highly enjoyable to watch when it’s done well, brutal when it’s not, eg, excessive screaming. I don’t consider myself a performance poet; I’m not comfortable giving that kind of reading. But I do work hard on my delivery. Like Donna, I record myself reading the poems, play them back and recite aloud with my voice on the recorder. This allows me to hear where I’m off and to bring each poem into my body, to feel it. I don’t think I’m capable of memorizing all the poems I typically do for a reading, but I, without trying, memorize sections and that allows me to look up and speak those lines to the audience without going right back to the page. There is, I think, plenty of room for a wide variety of delivery styles. Memorization is a good exercise, but I don’t think it’s an essential part of a poet’s reading style. One thing I insist on is some eye contact–someone here made a case for no eye contact. I just can’t relate to a poet who won’t look at me.

    • Yeah, in my readings I always try to give things more of a living-room than auditorium feel by making extensive eye contact. Of course, that is in part because I rarely read to an audience of more than thirty people!

      Thanks for commenting.

  6. Some poets are very bad readers. I applaud those who can recite from memory, and I do think it adds a more uncontrived intimacy with the audience. I was in theater long enough to know you don’t go onstage with the script in hand. I also know the terror of losing your place or forgetting something essential. I used to trust my memory. I don’t anymore. I would never do a reading without having something solid to fall back on should I suddenly lose my mind!

    • I think Paul’s comparison with sheet music at concerts is very apt — especially classical concerts, where the music is sufficiently complext that doing without sheet music might seem foolhardy. But plenty of performers, and even a few conductors, do. I wonder about the extent to which Leonard Bernstein’s extremely flamboyant style, for example, reflected his liberation from the page?

  7. You don’t want to see a standup comedians, singers, stage actors, or ministers working off a pad. And yet good writers beg off when it comes to doing the bare minimum for live audiences, pleading shyness and complexity.

    • Certainly, if shyness is an issue, relying on the written text would seem like a very bad idea, and memorization might well be good medicine.

      You don’t usually see singers relying sheet music, but violinists are a different story. Nic often talks about treating her voice as an instrument, and I find I often like to add informal notation to a text in pencil indicating the best places for rising or falling tones, pauses, etc., so this isn’t an entirely idle comparison. That said, I think poets could stand to learn a lot from standup comedians and actors. Ministers… well, I think it depends on the minister.

    • An interesting perspective. But there are some differences between those professions and poets. One, most poets don’t make their living from poetry, so the time available to be given over to the performance aspect may be limited.
      Two, with the exception of ministers, the other professions you list are in it to communicate, yes, but primarily to entertain. As an audience member, I can sit back and listen to a singer and be entertained by the sounds without paying too much attention to the words or even looking at the performer. I cannot do that at a poetry reading without breaking the lines of communication completely.

      Many poets write to communicate, but not necessarily to entertain, in the familiar sense of the word. Maybe “to engage” is a better way of saying it. And maybe poets need to be more aware of how to engage the audience in a more traditional performer/audience dynamic, which is what good spoken word poets do well.

  8. Yes, but we’re not talking about writing–it’s a person standing in front of a live audience. The level of preparation among writers, compared to just about any other type of live performance, is low. Audiences pick up on all sorts of negative connotations–everything from the boredom of academic lectures and business presentations, to the subtext that even the writer isn’t engaged with these words to the point of remembering them.

    Shakespeare performed badly is just a dull night at the theater. I don’t know why writers believe that all that effort expended on the page will carry them in front of a live audience, but too many of them do.

  9. i’m doing a reading tomorrow night. i will be reading, not reciting. but i will have rehearsed the poems i’m reading. there are some poems i won’t be reading because i think they work better on the page than orally. these tend to be shorter poems, with provocative line breaks.

  10. Lots of interesting considerations so far. Another is that I don’t write my poetry to be performed, but to be read. It is, for me, a purely textual artifact, not a performance. I write it that way. There is expressiveness, of course, but not performance. Spoken word poetry often has declamatory, rhythmic, and rhyme features that are meant for performance. My poetry purposely lacks those features in the same manner on purpose, because I think outside of performance they are not desirable.

    Some years back, at the first of my college’s annual spoken word and poetry festivals, as the organizer, I wrote for the occasion a poem in what I consider the spoken word manner. I was pleased with it, and I read it (knowing it quite well by the time of the reading) with greater than usual dramatic emphasis, because I wrote it with that performance aspect in mind. I still did not memorize it in order to free myself for greater performance, because I’m not comfortable with that kind of self-performance.

    There are no absolute rules, of course, with so much depending on the poet and the poem, but I do conceive the difference as of the kind between a scripted work and prose fiction.

  11. I don’t memorize my poems, but do know them very well–I’m not sure if reciting my work from memory would bring anything extra to the reading (that would be beneficial).

    I have fantasized about hiring actors to read my poems–building a scene around them, a fragmented play. It’s no Spiderman Musical, but I think I could work harnesses in somehow…

    I love hearing this conversation and all of the different perspectives.

  12. Wait, you think you’d be *more* likely to plagiarize your stuff if you had it memorized? That seems backwards to me.

    • Maybe it is. But I just came within a hair’s breadth of plagiarizing William Blake, from a poem I once committed to memory (the phrase “secret joy,” in reference to a flower). I don’t trust myself!

  13. Bill Lantry on Facebook just posted a link to this Carolyn Forche recitation (she starts out reading and you think she’s going to be reading, but stick with it) – what a great performance of a memorized poem!

    Then there’s this other one by her, in which she is straight reading and doesn’t even look up from the page to make eye contact with the audience during her reading. But an equally wow performance in my book.

    I’m not so sure good performance is about memorizing or not. There are deep intangibles at play – does the reader *inhabit* the poem, whether they are reading it or reciting it? Carolyn Forche does so in both cases above, I think.

  14. As a child I did competitive verse-speaking and could memorise easily but I’ve got older I just don’t trust my memory any more. I do like to at least partly know the poems so that I can look up from the book – I don’t like readings where the poet never looks up.

    There is something else though – for me, when I go to poetry readings, there is something more intimate in a poet who is reading well as opposed to a poet who is performing from memory. I suspect it is to do with where one’s focus is: I know that on the rare occasions I do something from memory, my energy is focussed on remembering and performing while when reading, my energy is focussed on the words and how they are approaching the audience. I find I have a much greater sensitivity to the audience’s reactions when I’m reading (I don’t mean the overt reactions such as applause or ‘hmms’ but the quality of listening.)

    As an audience member, I prefer a poet reading well to one performing.

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  16. I think memorizing poems can be easy if you recites them more than once because the words you says will stuck in your mind and you will be capable of memorizing them.

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