Monday, 23 February 2015


I've had a few people asking me about memorising poems recently.  I've always said: oh, you just need to rehearse it, but recently discovered that I come from a line of eidetic and semi-eidetic folk, so I may have a genetic advantage - what I consider "normal" memory is, in fact, "abnormally good" memory.


In addition, I was a musician (most notably: a singer) before I was a poet, so I have the near-life-long practice and discipline of memorising songs and pieces behind me that I take for granted along with performance skills like breath control, etc.

But there's technique behind the skill, it's just that it's long-embedded.  I've been asked again recently about memorising, so I thought I'd break it down a little, and share what I think you need to do so that you could all potentially benefit. Or comment and add your own tips.

I get the feeling that I'll be running a workshop on this soon... :)

Rehearse. A lot (I still think that this is valid!):

1. Run through it twice, all the way through, at the right speed, with pauses, etc.

2. Take the first stanza and start by doing the first line without text. Look up, gesture, *perform* it.

3. Now add the second line, so you're doing both lines together.

4. Keep going until that first stanza is secure.

5. Do the same for the second stanza, then add it onto the first and do them both together.

6. Keep going until it's all there.

During Rehearsal:

1. Use linking images. Find anchor points (not too many of them!) that you can pin a particularly vivid image in your head to that fits the line/ phrase.

2. Run through the whole thing at high speed, using a daft voice, just to prove to yourself that the words are there. Gallop. Do not stop for missed lines.

3. Start breaking it down a little by starting e.g. in the middle of the second stanza and seeing if you can get the next three lines. Practise until you can. Now pick another random spot and do the same thing.

4. If some lines aren't sticking consider one of these solutions:

a) are they the right lines? Are they not sticking because they actually don't fit the poem?

b) are they emotionally difficult? Learn to take a deeper breath before them - bolster yourself to be able to push through them to the easier bit on the other side.

c) say them over and again and again. Pepper these lines in your head with particularly vivid anchor images.

And rehearse. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Then leave it alone. Then rehearse again. Then leave it.

Before/ During the Performance:

Make sure you're well-hydrated before the performance, make sure you have enough carbs in you. When you get on stage, make sure you have a crib sheet to hand, but not too temptingly in front of you so that you rely on it. Don't be afraid to refer to it if you need to - you haven't failed, you've just succeeded in ensuring that your poem is going to be heard in its entirety! :)

And enjoy the freedom and exhilaration of performing without wires - you will likely feel more connected with the audience, and freer to gesture, make eye-contact, etc. - all those good things that can really help your performance. Also: that extra jolt of adrenalin, baby! :D