April is National Poetry Month and the Poets and Writers’ Newsletter suggests that we learn a poem by heart each week. By inhabiting another’s words, we can inspire our own poetry. This is the type of activity and challenge that has a curious appeal for me.
It’s funny how the stream of consciousness works. The suggestion got me thinking about the play Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell. I love this play for so many different reasons. Firstly, it is fantastically written, warm and funny and inspiring. Secondly, I find the idea of breaking out of the mundanity of everyday life and following your dreams an alluring proposition. Finally, I think it’s a brave move to write a play with only one on-stage character, and an even braver move for the actress who takes on the role. I’ve seen it a couple of times at the theatre, once many years ago and, more recently, with Meera Syal at the Trafalgar Studios in London, a theatre which has a quite intimate atmosphere, where you feel you are almost on the stage with the cast. Needless to say, Ms Syal was brilliant, delivering her lines naturally whilst simultaneously chopping potatoes into chips, or unpacking her beach bag and setting herself up by her rock.
This caused me to marvel at how somebody can learn all those lines and then deliver them without stumbling or fluffing them. After all, there’s no relief from the pressure of performing, no sitting back whilst someone else does their bit, nobody else’s lines to act as prompts. And there are a lot of lines. How easy can it be to learn them, to remember them (in the right order), reproduce them and act at the same time? Am I capable of doing this? Not the acting, or the Liverpool accent, of course; just (!) the lines. I saw the playscript in the National Theatre bookshop – it looks long? How do you go about doing it? Do you learn the first bit and when you’ve got that, move on to the second bit? Would that mean that you know the first bit really well but struggle as the play progresses? What kind of strategies are there for doing this kind of thing? Every so often, these questions return to me and I am tempted to have a go.
So coming back to my original point, learning one poem a week during April should be an easy task in comparison. I remember loving The Lady of Shalott as a child, and learning it by heart just for the fun of it. Even now, I can still recite bits. Consequently, learning a poem a week in April is something that is appealing. Perhaps I’ll just try to do one to begin with and see how it goes.
My first choice will be Shakespeare’s Sonnet No 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
What four poems would you like to learn by heart?
What poems from your childhood can you still recite?