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Dec. 12 2009 - 9:58 am | 116 views | 2 recommendations | 3 comments

Recited poetry finds an online home

n165770957255_7646For centuries, poetry was largely memorized, recited, and passed down to future poets and audiences orally. But these days, poetry has transformed into something that is predominately read and written—so much so that you might be hard-pressed to find a willing audience if you want to recite a poem to an audience, “It can be a very pretentious thing to do, to just start reciting a poem at a dinner party,” says poet Frank Giampietro. “And yet, given the right circumstances and an interested audience, it can be a lot of fun to hear someone recite a poem.”

With this in mind, Giampietro launched the Web site Poems by Heart this summer. “I felt like a webpage might make the perfect circumstances and the audience would have to be interested because, after all, the audience chooses to go to the site,” he says.

The minimalist site includes mp3s of readers and poets reciting other poets’ work. To date, more than 20 people have submitted mp3s, all of which include their brief thoughts on why they selected the poems they did.

As part of an ongoing series about intriguing literary and literacy projects, I recently spoke with Giampietro about Poems by Heart and the art of memorizing poems. A excerpt of our conversation follows:

Up until fairly recently, poetry was largely memorized, recited, and passed down to future poets and audiences orally, and more recently, I suppose poetry’s become something that people come to know through reading. Why memorize a poem?

Right, all this memorizing business began [with] the likes of Homer and the Old Testament storytellers. But for me the history isn’t as interesting as the reasons one chooses to memorize a certain poem. In fact, I’ve found that choosing the right poem to memorize is often harder than actually memorizing it. And if you don’t choose just the right one, you will find yourself on the eighth line or fourth stanza saying to yourself, “Why did I think this was so terrific again?” Recently on a car trip from Tallahassee to Houston, I started memorizing W.S. Merwin’s “The River of Bees.” I’ve always enjoyed hearing a recording of Merwin reading it. But when I got to the third stanza, I started realizing that in terms of image, the poem wasn’t as interesting as I had thought it was while listening to it. It was very interesting in lots of other ways, and I still think it’s a masterful poem. But the reason I started to memorize it changed as I got to know the poem so intimately. So in a way memorizing “The River of Bees” changed my relationship with the poem. It’s like we moved past the romantic part of our relationship and went to the I’ll-always-love-you-even-when-you-are-old-and-ugly [phase].

That’s the other huge benefit of memorizing a poem. You get to know it so deeply, you get to inspect its DNA, you have to in order to find ways to make it stick in your brain, you notice half-rhymes that you wouldn’t [notice] on even a second or third close reading. You notice repetitions and even mistakes.

What are you hoping to accomplish by merging this old oral tradition with new mediathat is, the mp3 format, a Web site, a Facebook page, etc.?

The Internet is a perfect venue for listening to the recitation of a poem because you get to choose to listen and for how long and which poem. This as opposed to having to suffer through some dude two martinis too many into the night, whipping out his “Whose Woods These Are I think I know . . .”

There’s very little text on your site—and there’s not a text version of any of the poems themselves. Why did you choose to focus Poems by Heart purely on the audio element?

I wanted the site to do one unique thing. There are lots of other sites out there that have poems written down and one could always find and then open up the poems in another window and then follow along. But Poems by Heart just does two things—it gives you a recited poem by a poet and the reason the poet thought it was worth reciting.

There’s an mp3 of you reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 on Poems by Heart. Do you have a particular method for memorizing and reciting a poem? Any tips you’d give to other people who might be interested in memorizing and reciting a poem for your site or for their own purposes?

First and most importantly is to start with a metered poem that rhymes. Metered rhyming poems are a hundred times easier to memorize than free verse poems because the rhyme and meter forms patterns that make memorizing easier. For instance, it doesn’t take long to memorize lines like “Tiger Tiger burning bright / in the forests of the night.”

Your “About” page asks submitters to include why they’ve decided to memorize and recite the particular poem they’ve selected. Of the submissions you’ve received so far, what has been your favorite or the most interesting rationale a submitter has given for memorizing a poem?

Hmm, I’m thinking of Rhett Isemann Trull’s reason for memorizing William Matthews’ poem “Mood Indigo.” She said his poem is like her theme song. I like that, that a poem can be your theme song, something that grows with you as you grow old, something that sticks and won’t unstick. I like that a memorized poem can define you as an individual, is part of what makes up the myth of the self, that changes you as you internalize it.

Most of the poems posted so far are by poets who are now deceased as opposed to current working poets. Why do you think this is the case?

I think one wants to be sure the poem one memorizes is certain to make it into the canon. Of course, it’s just as likely that one wants to be sure the poet will never make it into the canon, that’s a valid thing, too. But one memorizes poets who are dead and established for the same reason you don’t want a living president’s face on Mount Rushmore. If he is alive, he might still screw up.

You started Poems by Heart just a few months ago in the summer of 2009. What has surprised you most about the experience so far?

What’s surprised me most is the number of long poems, poems of more than forty lines that don’t rhyme and aren’t metered that people know. It’s really remarkable to memorize a really long poem and speaks to both the dedication of the memorizer and the excellence of the poem.

Do you have any particular plans or visions for the site in the future? Any features you’d like to add or any particular people you’d like to have recite a poem (or any particular poems you’d like to hear recited)?

I would love to have some more celebrity poets up there reciting poems that have formed them as poets so more people might be interested in accessing the site. But I’m happy for any writer to participate.


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    Thanks for writing about this new website. I am always interested in the ways that something like poetry with a oral tradition is mixing with new technology. I think technology should not be seen as the enemy of tradition, even though many times it is. I have always carried around a copy of Margaret Atwood’s poem “You begin” and though I have not memorized it, maybe this will be an opportunity to do so.

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    Thanks, Nick. Glad you enjoyed it. I agree — there’s something really intriguing about the ways that new technology interacts with older oral and written forms.

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    I am a freelance writer, editor, and Web consultant who primarily covers health, travel, and lifestyle topics. I have written for Redbook, Cooking Light, The Travel Channel, and The Writer's Chronicle, among others. I recently wrote a couple of travel guides about Houston and am the Blog Managing Editor at PsychCentral.com. Previously, I was the editor of InTheFray.org and a blog editor for Photo District News.

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