Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Poem-A-Day-By-Heart Project Reflections

I successfully completed my month-long project of memorizing a poem or a poetic speech each day in April, National Poetry Month. As it was also Shakespeare's birthday month, much of what I memorized consisted of his sonnets and a few speeches. As my system was to memorize until I could perform the poem verbatim by looking directly into the my video camera, there was not enough time to get the text from working memory to long term memory. Consequently, effortless verbatim memory of the poems faded almost as soon as I put the poems aside. This made me question the value of this practice. It differs from when I am memorizing lines for a theatrical performance, either ensemble or solo. There the script is repeated daily over a period of days or, generally, weeks and then performed usually several times before a live audience. Even so, after a period of weeks, perhaps even days, large chunks or possibly most of the script fades from instant and effortless retrieval. This makes me think that the concept of short term or "working" memory is relative and that deeper "grooves" need to be "ploughed" if the material needs to live in the memory longer, such as for the run of a show. The moment other material holds one's attention in place of the memorized text, that is, once the memorized text is not continually refreshed by either rehearsal or performance, it will begin to fade.

This is not the case with material that has entered long term memory, it seems. I, along with many actors, still have large chunks of Shakespeare still pretty much word perfect in my memory despite years - more than a decade - of rehearsal or performance. How long and what process is required to transfer a text from working to long term memory I am still uncertain. Usually, I claim it a matter of being able to perform the piece "in your sleep," or otherwise without having to think about it; automatically.

I have been contemplating the classical techniques in light of my own experience and experiments. I think the places and images technique adaptable IF done with an awareness of the structures of poetry. Whereas the ancients memorized a speech by taking an imaginary walk through a building they had memorized and then mentally superimposed images on individual architectural units, I think it effective to memorize the structure of the poem and superimpose or slot words and images onto and into that structure. For example, the English sonnet consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter - ten (occasionally eleven) syllables and five primary stresses. The rhyme scheme for the Shakespearean sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg, while others use some variations on that. It helps me to take a mental walk across the lines of of the sonnet, line by line from left to right and down to the next line, until I perform the sonnet verbatim. Meantime, I am also seeing a sequence of images, like a mini-film, as I plough through the lines.

Performing the words aloud also helps by adding the muscle memory of articulation and pronunciation to the memory support system. Speaking the words aloud as I copy them by hand onto paper also help dig some grooves. After having memorized the poem, writing it by hand onto paper without referring to the original is a good test of accuracy.

Working on the text just before going to sleep and then immediately upon awakening also seems to help the process.

After putting as many useful schemes of memorization to work, the ultimate test of really "owning" the text is to be able to perform it with no hesitation (except deliberate ones for meaning and emotion) as if one is making up the words spontaneously.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Daily Poetry by Heart Project Update

I'm on to my 15th poem to memorize today. From the first of April, National Poetry Month, until now, I've scheduled Shakespeare sonnets, memorizing one per day. Simultaneously, I have been researching the sonnets, rhapsodizing, and mnemonic techniques both ancient and modern. Helen Vendler's book on Shakespeare's sonnets has proven quite helpful and so has the Oxford edition of Shakespeare's complete poetry. I have ordered the Arden edition of the sonnets as well, since it is one of the most scholarly editions. The Book of Memory by Mary Carruthers is an excellent reference for medieval memory techniques and practices, competently supplementing The Art of Memory by Francis A. Yates, a classic in the field. I've also googled "memorizing verbatim" and "how to memorize a poem" and found some interesting sites, the suggestions on which I have been trying. Most interesting, though is observing myself in the process of memorizing and finding what works for me. I've kept copious notes and intend on eventually publishing an academic article based on my findings.

Here is my schedule for the month:

April    Sonnet #          First Line
1          129                  The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
2          154                  The little Love-god lying once asleep
3          73                    That time of year thou mayst in me behold
4          91                    Some glory in their birth, some in their skill
5          21                    So is it not with me as with that Muse
6          65                    Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
7          146                  Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth
8          148                  O me! What eyes hath Love put in my head
9          123                  No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change
10        71                    No longer mourn for me when I am dead
11        33                    Full many a glorious morning have I seen
12        153                  Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep
13        103                  Alack! What poverty my Muse brings forth
14        63                    Against my love shall be as I am now
15        27                    Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed
16        2                      When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
17        15                    When I consider everything that grows
18        12                    When I do count the clock that tells the time
19        75                    So are you to my thoughts as food to life
20        76                    Why is my verse so barren of new pride

            Passage                      First Line or Title
21        HV IV Prologue            I. Now entertain conjecture of a time    
22        HV IV Prologue            II. The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
23        HV IV Prologue            III. O now, who will behold
24        HV IV Prologue            IV. A largess universal like the sun
25        MM Angelo 2.2            What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
26        Spenser                       My love is like to ice, and I to fire
27        Frost                            Hyla Brook
28        Wordsworth               It is a beauteous evening, calm and free!
29        Meredith                     Lucifer in Starlight
30        Milton                         When I Consider How my Light is Spent

Actually, though this is April 14, I am already on to memorizing the poem for April 15 (Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed) because I have switched from starting to memorize in the morning and recording at night to recording first thing in the morning after having studied the poem the previous day. This I did based on a suggestion I read on a website that sleeping on the poem is helpful to the memorizing process. I don't really know if that works or if my following of the procedure really tests it, but I'm doing it anyway.

As you can see, from the 21st through the 25th, I am memorizing lines from the plays Henry V and Measure for Measure. The period centers around Shakespeare's birthday, April 23. After this, I am memorizing sonnets of other poets.
I am seriously considering continuing this practice indefinitely. It has made waking up an exciting adventure for me. This is exactly one of the central practices for a rhapsode - expanding repertory.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Performing Reverberance: A Poetic Rhapsody at the University of Tampa

Personal Project for National Poetry Month - April 2011 - beginning today

It's been too long since I posted here but I am remedying that now.

Today I began a personal project in observance of National Poetry Month. Inspired by the story in the book A SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR PREPARES (co-authored by Michael York) of Dame Sybil Thorndike memorizing a poem every morning before breakfast to "keep her memory in trim," I have set myself the challenge of memorizing poem every day. I'm giving myself the whole day, not just the time before breakfast, although, since I don't usually eat until very late afternoon, it might happen anyway. I am choosing mostly sonnets by Shakespeare. I am supplementing these with a few speeches from his plays, divided into 14-line segments, and some sonnets by others - Spenser, Frost, Milton, Wordsworth, and Meredith.

Today I memorized sonnet #129, which begins, "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action." I am planning to take note of the experience, which is quite enlightening. At the end of every day, as I did today, I plan to video myself performing the poem looking directly into my camera lens as proof that I have memorized the poem. Today it took me 12 takes before I was satisfied that I knew the poem as well as I aimed to. I kept getting it and losing it at various times of the day. I started memorizing in earnest around 5:30am or so and felt I had it at 6:15am. At least I got through it without a hitch in the quiet early morning of my home office. But as I tried to recite it for my wife on the crowded drive to work, I lost parts - no doubt due to the distraction of traffic. As I continued to work on it in my Falk office, I would lose certain parts. Sometimes, when trying to launch into the sonnet cold after having trained my mind concentratedly on another project, I would creep through it almost word by word. Then after a few run throughs, I would be able to recite it smoothly. Sonnet 129 is particularly difficult because the meter is violated by a choppy rhythm of single words - "Savage, extreme, rude, cruel..." Many of the lines are end-stopped and I found it hard to link them to the following lines.

As I work through this project, I am taking notes to eventually turn into an article to submit to Oral Tradition, Text and Performance Quarterly or another academic journal I can find that might be interested.

Tomorrow's sonnet is his last, sonnet #154, which begins, "The little Love-God, lying once asleep..."
I am already working on it - at least just familiarizing myself with it. So my official day is not necessarily from midnight to midnight but from one evening to the next, much like the Hebrews count them - "and the evening and the morning were the first day."