I was recently invited to read a set of poems in-person at the Poetry in Aldeburgh festival, and for this I decided to learn the whole set and perform it from memory. Barring one or two missed lines, it worked out pretty well. I’ve performed like this once or two before (more commonly with individual poems). A lot of people from the audience came up to me to talk about it afterwards, so I wanted to share my thoughts, reflections, and the implications of what happens to your poems when you learn them.
A handful of the poems I knew already from having performed them before. Some others I’d partially learned passively from having read them a lot. But others I’d never learnt before. So, what did I learn about this experience? And would I do it again?
Firstly, memorising a poem is hard. So many words! But it forces you to be critical about everything in the poem—if you’re going to go through the great effort of memorising it, is it worth it? is that line essential or can it go?
Secondly, if there is one particular section of a poem which is difficult to learn, is there something about the flow or the rhythm of it here that doesn’t sit right? Is it that this section is not strong enough to be memorable? If so, then edit it.
There were a couple of lines from the published poems that I cut (deliberately) when performing them, to really fine-tune the poem. And the end of one my poems took a lot of effort to learn—I don’t think this ending is strong enough given everything that happens in the poem before it.
I’ve seen other poets perform poems from memory, especially at poetry slams. When you learn the piece (or the whole set), it makes it more engaging (I’ve had comments that my set was "spellbinding" and "mesmerising"). There is no prop to block the words spoken by the poet to the audience—it becomes a conversation, as though the poet is not reciting a poem but simply talking to you.
One of the advantages of doing events online is that you can have your poems on the screen, and you can look straight at the screen with your webcam above it and read your poems—it has the same effect, it’s like you're talking directly to the audience. When you do it in-person, without some sort of teleprompter, there’s nowhere to hide—you have to learn them.
So, learning a poem from memory is difficult, but it’s worth it. It helps with the final polishing of the poem before performance—do I really need that line? does it flow? And the delivery makes for a mesmerising and naturalistic set of poems, something more direct than if there is paper in front of you.