13th February 2020
In this blogpost, David Whitley shares with us his reading of Clive James’s fascinating and insightful Poetry Notebook, and what the late great broadcaster and poet had to tell us about poetry memorization and performance.
Reading the late Clive James’s Poetry Notebook recently reminded me of how fascinated he was by the memorization and performance of poetry. Much of what he has to say on this topic resonates really interestingly with the practices that Poetry By Heart has sought to reinvigorate. James develops a characteristically clear, thoughtful and provocative stance on the significance of poetry’s power to lodge in our memories, as well as on how poetry should be performed. Sharing some of his thoughts may stimulate further discussion and debate amongst Poetry By Heart users.
Like many poets, Clive James sees memorability not just as an ancillary feature, but something essential to poetry as an art form. Indeed, reading through Poetry Notebook you realise that he is invoking memorability consistently as a prime quality in judging the value of a poem. A poem that is not memorable – at least in parts – is not worthy to survive, according to James. He quotes with approval Robert Frost’s apparently humble ambition (though actually more demanding than higher sounding alternatives) of ‘lodging a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of’. Seamus Heaney made this a touchstone for effective poetry teaching, indeed, when he wrote that ‘[W]hat matters most in the end is the value that attaches to a few poems intimately experienced and well remembered. If at the end of each year spent in school, students have been marked by even one poem that is going to stay with them, that will be a considerable achievement.’ (In ‘Bags of Enlightenment‘, in The Guardian)
Although a good poem can’t exist without at least some memorable lines, it may not be easy to memorise as a whole, however. James cites Frost’s sonnet ‘The Silken Tent’ as being a brilliant poem that is particularly difficult to learn by heart. He also reflects critically on the relationship between memorable lines and – long! – unmemorable sections in Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. Interestingly, the renowned American critic and strong advocate of memorising poetry, Helen Vendler, has suggested that the sections of a poem that are particularly difficult to remember accurately often provide clues to its deeper, or more subtle, meanings. This is perhaps a good reason to encourage learners not only to persevere in memorising a poem accurately, but also to think carefully about the distinctive effect of the parts of a poem that are phrased in ways that are awkward and hard to commit to memory.
James is equally engaged and categorical when discussing how poems should be performed. Although his tastes in poetry are broad, he sets great store by a poem’s form and structure, which he considers essential to its capacity to engage us deeply. A good recitation is one that has responded intelligently and sensitively to the structure, as well as the sense, of the poem. In his ‘Poetry Archive Tour’, for instance (available on the Archive’s website and well worth visiting), James praises Philip Larkin’s recitation of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ for knowing ‘how to observe…line endings’ – ‘unlike almost all professional actors’, he adds, rather acerbically. ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is composed in regular, rhymed stanzas, of course. But in free, or ‘open’ verse, line endings are likely to be the only formal device structuring the poem. Line endings’ cues as to how a poem should move when spoken – particularly where subtle pauses might cut across the more natural rhythms of prose speech – thus take on all the more importance here.
James does not advocate an artificially ‘poetic’ voice for recitation, however. His ideal is the ‘unaffected naturalness’ he attributes to James Fenton’s performance of his poem ‘Jerusalem’. But James sees this naturalness as just one side of what he calls a ‘precious double gift’; its counterpart is the speaker’s finding a way to retain ‘all the rigorous construction of [the] verse forms’, without seeming strained. This is clearly a considerable challenge to do well, particularly as there is always also a danger of trying to dramatize, or big up, the emotion too much. Clive James’s ideal reader will never make ‘the mistake of trying to put extra emotion into lines that already had, packed within them, all the emotion they could take.’ Often it will be the quiet performance, allowing the poem to speak rather than drawing too much attention to itself, that will be the most impressive. This apparently self-effacing approach doesn’t mean the performer can’t still own the poem, however – quite the reverse, paradoxically. A quiet performance may still render the poem highly personal and distinctive.
David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the ‘Poetry and Memory’ research project with Debbie Pullinger. He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime