Poetry of Memory is Voice, Not Words
By Kagayi Ngobi
When the late Joseph Walugembe was still the Director of the Uganda National Theatre, he once explained to my friends and I of the Lantern Meet of Poets how our poetry was different from that of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. I recall him emphasizing how the memorized and dramatized performance of our poetry was the main ingredient. Up to that point I had never considered memorized oral expression of poetry even as aspects of poetry.
When I was growing up I loved reading the two African poetry books my father had. Fascinated by how words paint mental pictures and messages together, I memorized those I loved and repeated them to myself the afternoons I was hunting for jackfruit. The enjoyment of this poetry was a private experience. When I joined secondary school I was pleased to find a subject about reading novels, plays and poems. I liked the poems a lot. Up to this point, save for my City Nursery School teachers who taught me rhymes, my teachers of poetry had not mentioned performance or memorization during their lessons. Their emphasis was always on ‘how to interpret’ a poem. This status quo was interrupted in S.4 when I had my first encounter with the term memorization in class.
The O’Level UNEB Literature in English examination paper had a poetry section which had an optional question that tasked the candidate to reproduce a poem from memory and then respond to the questions that followed. The teacher prepping us for the encounter made us aware of this fact. That was as far as the memorization lesson went, along with a stern recommendation to “avoid that question”. We would mess up. But the other section, the one which had a poem and only required ‘interpretation’, that was ‘the easier one’. After all we were there to pass.
It was not until I went to university in my third year that (for the first time since my nursery school) I experienced life through memorized performance poetry. As an orate Ugandan who grew up on poetry as a page/reader’s experience, what I found on display at the Uganda National Theatre in 2008 was a redefining experience: a poetry group orally and dramatically shared originally composed poetry with the audience like this. It was so alive. More alive than any of the poetry I had previously encountered.
As the recipient of the poetic energy performance woke a certain spirit in me to examine life through the deeper imagination of my senses. I was driven to think more about the themes and other sensibilities poems possess beyond the appearance of words.
From that day I realized performing poetry gave more experience of the poem than reading it. The poems performed that night were good compositions, but the ‘immediacy, flexibility, communality, vividness and strength of structure’ of the live performance gave poetry a new meaning. The audience was society’s listening membrane. The collective reception of a memorized poem’s energy was more compelling than what personal reading offers. Later, when I started performing memorized poetry, my creative composition process metamorphosed.
The performance experience empowered me to connect more with the zeitgeist as a poet. It brought me closer my environment, my material and audience. I felt liberation of expression I hitherto could not as a reader. Things like iambic pentameter and writing Shakespearean sonnets became secondary. What mattered was how I conveyed my message in the clearest form and language possible to the audience. With orality, the poem is published immediately in the memory of the recipient, suffusing the speaking voice into a realness that captures moments for memory.
It is when I began teaching poetry in secondary school that I learnt to appreciate oracy over literacy in poetry. Our understanding of poetry was what school taught us yet it is different from the oral poetry we grew up with and still live with. I learnt that my love for poetry did not start from the two books I read from my father’s collection but from the oral literature I was nurtured with, in Iganga. I learnt that students are more poetic than some of the poems they are required to examine. I learnt that students in class are more drawn to the culture of poetry performances than that of reading poems. The culture also attracted even those who did not know, or hated, what poetry is. Oral performances are ‘more obuntu’ in that.
Sadly, today we allow artificial memory to take the place of functional memory. So the page and the phone have been given place in our public performance spaces. I daresay they should not. The page and the phone should be a private experience. Unless we have forgotten, poetry is memory of voice, not words.
Kagayi Ngobi is a Ugandan poet and founder member of poetry group Kitara Nation. His works have been performed in various theaters and festivals in Uganda, East Africa and Europe. He is also the author of the poetry collection 'The Headline That Morning and Other Poems' (Sooo Many Stories, 2016).