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WHY I NO LONGER NEED TO LEARN MY POEMS BY HEART

By Kwame Dawes

Now it is true that not all poets who recite their poems by heart are performance poets. But they both pose the same problem for me. I admire them. I especially admire those who remember those really long poems that they have written. They go on and on, and I have to say that part of why I applaud so loudly is because I am so impressed that they remembered all those words. It is really impressive. Once, I watched the late New York-raised (British-based at his untimely death in 2004) poet, Michael Donaghy completely seduce a quaint English living room full of aspiring poets with his capacity to get high by “smoking” a potato (true story), and by reciting his poems, slowly, with feeling, his face moving around the room, his eyes twinkling, and the complex genius of his images coming alive in stunning ways. But even then, my amazement at his capacity to retain so many words, and especially those poems that were not linear or narrative-based, demanded more admiration from me that the poems themselves. It can seem like a bit of a freak show, this business of remembering so many words. This business of saying back to other people with accuracy and feeling is part of the grand accomplishment.

Okay, so maybe I am just jealous of these people, but I know what it is like to impress people with what I can remember. I still have in memory whole passages of Shakespeare’s plays that I had to learn when I was studying his plays in high school. Then I learned a few choice passages of T.S. Eliot while overhearing my sisters swatting from Four Quartets while they were in high school in Jamaica. “Time present and time past…etc.” When I quote Shakespeare while watching a film version, I remember how impressed I was when my father would do the same when I was a child. I get giddy with the power of remembering the words. But what is that about, really? Tragically, it is less about the words I am saying than it is about the fact that I remember them and am able to repeat them by heart. So I am convinced that folks who do this routinely must know how powerfully affecting a parlor game this business is.

But I can’t be a hater, as we say. I should not rain on anyone’s parade or mess up anyone’s groove. Game is game, is what I say. My quarrel is less about the folks who can do that, but what happens when I have to read with folks who can do that. You see, one of the beautiful benefits of performing one’s poetry from memory is that lighting people really love you. Lighting people, you see, are used to lighting stages for dances, for bands, and for plays. They don’t have to worry about giving the performer enough light to see what they are performing. This allows the lighting person tremendous latitude in making a stage beautiful, something to stun an audience.

But bring on an orchestra, and the best one will get is the plain white light of illumination for the musicians to read their scores. Bring on a reading poet, and she will complain until she is able to read what is on the page in front of her. That is me. I am the poet trying to read and needing light. This compounded by the fact that I have the kind of eyesight that requires bright light for me to function at all. There is a beautifully fascinating story about my eyesight that I will write about one day, but I won’t get into here — but suffice it to say that my shortsightedness is not a mere inconvenience, but a genuine challenge for me.

Last year, I was in Cape Town, South Africa to perform. I really remember that city with deep fondness and pleasure. On the night of my reading/performance, it occurred to me, once I got to the venue where a lighting crew was doing a technical, that somehow, the narrative of my being a “reggae poet” had a critical downside. The expectation was that as a “reggae poet” I would also be a “dub poet,” which meant that I was a performance poet — meaning that I did not read my poems from books but knew my poems by heart.

I asked for more light on stage. The poor, frustrated, though considerate lighting folks tried. They put a lamp over my head, they tried to refocus the lights, and the result was a terribly ugly stage washed with too much light. The other performers, as it happened, were, well, “performance poets,” and had no need for illumination for reading. Soon, I became filled with a sense of embarrassment and a feeling that I was really being more trouble to these kind people than was necessary. I was juts one voice, and I really ought to pay the small price of embarrassment for being too lazy to know my poems by heart.

Finally, I told the lighting folks to leave the lights as they were. I started to think of the poems of mine I could remember. I could think of four. These were poems I had written and turned into songs. I remembered them not because they were poems for memory, but because they were songs. I can remember the lyrics of songs. With a lot of banter, a few songs, and slow talk, I could get in my twenty minutes, maybe, without cracking a book.

Fine. But inside, I was not pleased. I had actually prepared a reading list for the performance (something I often do not do so far in advance), and I thought it was a really pleasant and cohesive list. I wanted it to be a great reading. Now I would be performing old, old poems. I would be performing stuff I did not have any intention of performing.

On my way back to the hotel along the narrow cobbled lanes of the city, I had a brain wave. I had with me my brand new iPad. If there was one thing I knew about the iPad, it was that I could read it in pitch darkness. Suddenly my heart found such pleasure at this realization. I hurried to my hotel, quickly transferred my selection of poems from my laptop’s hard-drive, via email, to my iPad. In a few minutes, I had my whole reading on the iPad, ready to be accessed in darkness, ready to be expanded to a comfortable level, and ready for the stage.

I thought the reading went well. It was such a relief. The performance poets were, of course, the hits. They were brilliant, and on top of it, they showed diligence, care, and just the right amount of hubris and self-worth by knowing the poems by heart. Still, I do okay even with a book (in this case a fancy new iPad) in hand. So I was happy.

That is until I got back to my hotel. I logged in to check email and I discovered a few alerts that actually reviewed the show while I was doing it. One clearly unimpressed audience member berated me, someone he called a show off and an arrogant sod with my fancy iPad, for the reading, and went on about how could I, a man who publishes books, take onstage of a poetry reading a tool of Babylon intent on putting to death the book as we know it. It was quite scathing and deeply felt.

I admit, I was slightly taken aback, but I sucked it up. I never imagined myself to be being arrogant by using the pad, but then again, it was a new contraption, and I had one. It did not matter how I got one, or why I went on stage with it. I understood.

But then there was another review — this one responding to the previous one. She (and it was a she), begged to disagree. She thought it was a great reading, and I impressed her because “it was great to see an old guy using such a modern contraption as an iPad.”

How evil and vain am I to have been startled by the comment of this very kind woman. “Old guy?” When did that happen?

I depend on the iPad a lot these days for readings. I like books, and I like the feel of books, but for readings, I need to see, and I can see with the pad. Of course, the pad has not helped me become more ambitious about learning my poems. In fact, it has spoiled any chance of that happening soon.

At least for the first eight months of having the iPad, I got to have my own parlor trick to compete with those poets who know their poems by heart. I can go on forever about its benefits. I open up the screen and its plastic luminous face makes people sigh. It is a beautiful thing.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 4th, 2011 by Kwame Dawes.