Monday, July 20, 2009

The Art of the Memory

Over the years I have really learned to appreciate the kinds of performances that become possible when the repertoire is memorized. This is only partly because I'm only as good a sight-reader as a guitarist can be--which means not very good--and even more because most of the musics that I play have almost no use for notation except, occasionally, as an aide-memoire. Most of those musics are played by ear, by improvisation, and from the memory.

Some of the first heavy-duty memorization I did was poetry: pieces like Alfred Noyse's The Highwayman (since turned into a poem by Andy Irvine), Walter de la Mare's wonderfully spooky and evocative The Listeners, and Noyse's The Admiral's Ghost; the occasional piece of lyric poetry; and the fantastic versions of iconic Shakespearean speeches excerpted on LP from Olivier's films. Those latter are how I learned to recite the "Crispin's Day" speech from Henry V and both the "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind" and, most wonderful of all, Gravedigger's "Alas, poor Yorick" speeches from Hamlet. Though I know they are now considered dated and stagy--which seems like a cheap-assed attack, considering they were made as patriotic entertainment on a shoestring during WWII (and Henry V actually improves with this treatment--they are still my touchstone for how Shakespeare should sound.

Later, there were the magnificent verbal epics of Robin Williamson and Ben Bagby, and the stark dunghill haiku of late Yeats, and the beautiful verbal loop-the-loops of Seamus Ennis and Joyce and Ciaran Carson, and there were lots of others, but the above were the ones I first imprinted upon, and really remember, and can still recite to this day.

What I am reminded of, particularly, in looking at the above list, is the degree to which all of the above were, ultimately, based in oral poetry and in the model of live performance. Even Noyes and de la Mare were part of a generation of English writers who were quite consciously going back to the archetypes of Irish, Scottish, and English folk balladry--and you can hear it, when you take them off the printed page and back into the chanted voice.

Try it for yourself: find a printing of a poem--or, even better, a recording of a poet reading his/her own work--and learn it by heart. It'll come alive in your own voice.

Branagh's version of "Crispin's Day":

Olivier's version of "Alas, poor Yorick":

Now try de la Mare's The Listeners aloud, for yourself:

'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
'Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
Poetry lived in the voice, and the memory, first.

And it still does.

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