Memorizing Poems: The Poet as Storyteller
Those of you following my blog know that I record audio of my poems. The audio is sometimes rough (too monotone) I think, so I am getting voice coaching. Indeed, I learned that I may be trying to get too technical in my delivery. My voice coach, who is the lead singer in Ironweed Bluegrass Band, Swampweed (a Cajun Band), and Pigweed (a country band) encourages storytelling and not just the technical reading of a poem or expression of a song. She has said more than once that story telling is a major responsibility of both singers and writers. Telling good stories, whether they be songs or poems, requires several techniques.
For one, memorizing a poem will help me ‘breathe’ the poem better. She recommended I repeat the poem while pacing and moving around. Moreover, it is more powerful to read aloud while standing than sitting to open up the airways. I have found there is more opportunity to use body language to emphasize points while standing.
In this process of learning how to be a storyteller, I am encouraged to find words with emotive power and to emphasize them. Which words convey the story? I am also becoming more aware of the use of sounds and the stretching some syllables to emphasize key elements in the poem. For example, I plan to stretch out the words “somewhere” and “blindly” to emphasize the storyteller’s dismay and anguish at misplacing something important.
Another factor is pausing. I’m a poet who uses commas, periods, and other punctuation to set off thought groups. Without these marks, I’m not sure where to pause. In fact, breathing correctly depends on knowing where to pause. Pausing also conveys meaning, I find that by changing pauses, even when writing a poem much less reading one out loud, the interpretation changes. If the interpretation changes, so does the story. Why is that so?
The period is our strongest pause in English. We use it to end sentences or to take a long pause in breathing. That’s followed by the semi-colon (;), the colon (:), and then the comma (,). The comma is the weakest pause and the shortest breath. Altering these marks can change the meaning of an utterance. Take these simple examples.
What’s for dinner, Grandma? (Grandma, we’re hungry. What’s for dinner?)
What’s for dinner? Grandma? (Yuck! We don’t want to eat Grandma!)
Lets eat, kids. (OK, children, it’s time to eat.)
Let’s eat kids. (Yuck! What a horrible idea!)
In addition to considering pausing, I am considering intonation, the rising (/) and falling (\) of my voice. Intonation is as important as pausing in the oral delivery of a good story. The following example shows how changing punctuation can alter meaning.
What’s up the road? (\) A head? (/) (Is that a HEAD I see on the road? Let’s not drive over it!)
What’s up the road ahead? (\) (I can’t tell what that is on the road. Maybe I should slow down.)
Although the featured poem asks many questions, I may avoid the rising intonation that goes with yes/ no inquiries. I think the falling intonation may add more depth to the interpretation of the poem. Maybe the storyteller has misplaced many things routinely and is tired out from it. Possibly the storyteller is guilty of all those actions. On the other hand, using the rising intonation may show the storyteller’s anxiety about misplacing something important. Maybe she is searching for any excuse for this mistake.
Jane also encourages me to mark up the poem as much as I want to study the words and syllables that I want to emphasize. So I formatted the featured poem with more spacing as reminders to pause and to allow for a stronger delivery. I also indicated which syllables to strengthen. Since I’m a visual learner, I drew doodles to help me recall the lines (See the featured image).
I managed to memorize the poem in just one day with her advice. I haven’t redone the audio yet but will soon. I’m still working on the final delivery. I am playing with all these tools like they are new toys, and I have discovered that making audio of a poem is like singing a song. Every mark is a note, and every word makes the story.
Here is the original, un-illustrated poem:
I misplaced you.
Was I asleep in my tea?
Was I meandering on a twisted forest path
Of past life contemplations?
Was I hanging off a headline
Or falling off the edge of the Internet,
The dot in com,
Mesmerized by pixels and bytes?
Did I lapse you into a bed
By the Sea of Forgetting
On a beach of lost marbles?
Poem and Image: Copyright 2017 (See archive July 4, 2017) Barbara Harris Leonhard at email@example.com
My voice coach, Jane Accurso, and the website showing her many bands. The man with the banjo is my husband, Dierik Leonhard. He and Jane are the backbone in the three bands.
See also these books by Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance