Art of committing poetry lines to memory


If there be such a thing as the ‘memory quota’, the greatest supply may, between written word and spoken word poets, be poured in spoken word poets.

Spoken word poets, according to renowned poet Sylvester Chabuka, are those who commit their lines to memory, while written word poets are those who recite poems from a written source other than directly from memory — even if they have been reciting the same poetic piece for decades.

As poet Stanley Onjezani Kenani observed the other day, it is not easy for every poet to recite from memory, hence the world recognizes that others will always find it hard to recite from memory, hence the term written word poet.


Therefore, the written word poet will always refer back to something in order to deliver a perfect performance, even when performing live on stage.

“Quiet often, written-word poets find it hard to memorise their poems for recitals,” Kenani observed.

But the written word poet, most notably well-published poet Hoffman Aipira, has grounds for sticking to the script, other than memory.


“Sometimes, one has so many poetry engagements that it may be impossible to keep track of each and every line. The safest way, therefore, is to refer to some material in the course of the performance. One would not want to soil their image due to one sloppy performance simply because a poet wanted to impress the audience,” Aipira said.

Still, both written word and spoken word poets are geniuses in their own respect but, truthfully speaking, written word poetry seems dull during stage performances, and spoken word poetry emerges as the most palatable form for stage performance purposes.

This is not to say that it is without its drawbacks- chief among them being its regrettable tendency to simplify the mammoth task of committing things to memory, thereby making them appear natural despite the effort that goes into mastering such acts.

To commit to memory

Of late, Malawi has witnessed an increase in the number of poets who have taken to spoken word poetry, giving life to a genre that becomes inhibitive than expressive on stage. Some of the spoken word poets who have taken Malawi by storm include Yankho Seunda, Qabaniso Malawezi, Salima-based Fred

Kapwepwe, who has introduced spoken poetry in weddings and festivities, among others.

Seunda, who has become synonymous with pieces such as ‘Expectations’ and ‘Cursed endeavours’ can recite from memory for up to five minutes— not to mention Malewezi, who seems to relish his every performance.

Malewezi seems to have grown with age, and experience. The award-winning Malawian spoken word artist has, among other fora, recited at big stages such as Poetry Africa, AfrWeka Poetry Festival, Harare International Festival of Arts, Word N Sound Poetry Festival and Lake of Stars Arts Festival.

Malewezi told Weekender last year that the important thing with poetry is love one has for it, and everything – including committing the lines and stanzas to memory— falls into place. No wonder, Mzuzu University saw it fit to honour him when he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate for his masterly of creative arts in 2015.

But, then, how long does it Seunda to commit lines, stanzas to memory?

“I am not very sure,” Seunda told me recently, after one of his performances at Chancellor College’s The Great Hall.

Seunda, who had just performed a poem in which the persona was throwing tantrums over the father’s tendency to beat mum to pulp, said he had not put much thought into how long it takes for him to get used to a poem and feel confident enough to perform before a live audience.

He said the most important thing is to know the issues being addressed in a piece of poetry and ensure that there are no memory lapses.

“But, truthfully, I do not know how long it takes me to memorise these lines,” Seunda said.

Maybe it is a ‘trade secret’!

Jumping the line

Is it possible for written word poets to ‘cross the floor’ and tread on spoken word poetry territory?

Written word poet Joseph Madzedze said he has never heard of a case where a written word poet does both written word and spoken word poetry, saying this could be because every individual has strengths and works towards consolidating such strengths.

“For me, I feel comfortable as a written word poet because this is an area I am strong in. I guess if someone moved from being a written word poet and spoken word poet, they would stick to being spoken word poet as that would mean they have mastered the techniques of reciting from memory,” Madzedze said recently.

Madzedze also revealed that he decided to adopt a fast-recital pace because he stammers. He said, to avoid being overtaken by that [stammering], he recites at a fast pace in his bid to beat the stammering.

“And it works. It turns out I have also established my style of poetry,” Madzedze said.

Written word poet Silvester Chabuka said there is nothing wrong with written word poetry for one to think of making the switch to written word poetry.

He, however, observed that some written word poets like him sometimes briefly abandon the piece of paper or whatever material they have written the poem on, and look at the audience in the course of a performance— so long as the line being recited is short or well-known by the poet.

“Otherwise, I have been reciting at a number of events and I do not think the audience has problems with written word poets. That said, even written word poets maintain eye contact with the audience at strategic points and I think this means even written word poets can engage the audience and deliver a complete performance,” he said.

Long journey

It remains to be seen whether, following the introduction of poetry programmes on radios and television stations, as well as arts festivals, the number of spoken word poets will increase in an industry dominated by written word poets.

One would have hoped that, with the introduction of these platforms, the local poet would grab the chance and grab the audience’s attentive through spoken word pieces.

After all, the Malawian audience does not often get poetry in its “original” form. As Poetry Association of Malawi president, Felix Njonjonjo, observed, “90 percent of the poetry works Malawians get access to are pirated”.

The hope, therefore, was that, with the introduction of, for example, Chitsinda cha ndakatulo or Chiphweremwe cha M’tsangulutso‘’, the audience would enjoy ‘eye contact’ with the poet.

It turns out just such an encounter is miles away— although the Seundas and Malewezis are trying to bridge the gap.

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