Recording other people's poems for Whale Sound several times a week, I have learned deep in my bones what I already knew at a far more superficial level in my head - that reading a poem with your voice for an audience is nothing like reading a poem in your head for yourself. Nothing like it.
I used to think of 'voice' as an organ of transmission - after all, it's how we make ourselves heard, how we communicate our needs to those around us. It's counter-intuitive to think of the voice as a means of information collection, as an organ of investigation and evaluation. But I submit that voice is just that. It brings you information, in the same way your eyes and ears and nose do.
I live this all the time at Whale Sound. At first, I accepted poems based on my assessment of the poem-as-page, rather than poem-as-voice. I might mutter a poem quietly to myself before deciding to accept it, but basically, my eyes and intellect made the decision, not my voice (and not, by extension, my body - more on that below). Mistake. Those of you who are editors know this: voice is your friend. Voice is the best-ever filter for an editor.
Voice is relentless. It prods and pokes and unerringly finds weak spots. The text can't hide from voice the way it can from eyes and from the intellect. Voice tells you way more than whether or not the poet attempted to consider sound while composing. Voice tells you that the overall fabric of a poem isn't after all the rich brocade your eyes and intellect thought it was. A somewhat thin, fragile silk, perhaps...?
(By the way, deploying your voice to assess a poem doesn't mean just muttering the poem under your breath to yourself. Nor does it mean enacting some high-drama stage performance. It means an honest-to-goodness voicing of the poem, lifting it off the page and into your body, trusting the text and its craft to carry the voice - as if you were reading it for an audience.)
I've found that 95 percent of the time, voice thins out a poem and downgrades it. What your eyes and intellect thought was A+/wow material almost always ends up more like A- or B+ material once you apply the voice filter. Very occasionally, voice will give a matching A+ grade, but I've honestly never had voice give a higher grade.
Let's say, as others have before, that the voice is a musical instrument and the poem its score. The poem controls and directs the voice - either well, or poorly. And how do you properly assess a score until it is actually performed by the instrument for which it was written?
Some poems are perfectly constructed as scores for voice – they are in tune with the anatomy of the instrument they are written for, they trust the voice, and are both inspiring and liberating to perform.
What makes a poem an ideal score? In my view, poems written following three sets of imperatives that extend beyond the mere physicality of voice, while still essentially feeding and driving the latter: imperatives of the intellect, the emotions and the voice (I prefer saying ‘voice/body’ for this last, since using voice entails doing much more than simply activating one’s vocal chords – voicing a poem properly is really a whole-body experience.)
For me, all three elements are always at play to some extent in a poem, but not always in a state of balance: one or two elements often crowd out the third. I am just now understanding that it is only by properly voicing a poem that I am able to separate out the three elements and determine the state of balance (or imbalance) in a poem, ending up in this kind of assessment:
Written primarily by the intellect – technically sound and with a cohesive process of thought evident in the narrative. Emotional imperatives are convincingly present, although dimly – they are over-shadowed by the intellect. The poem lacks true voice awareness. The few technical ‘sound’ mechanisms in the text (alliteration, internal rhyme, and so on) are not used in a way that is convincing/authentic to the voice/body.
Wonderful strong emotional imperatives and beautifully attuned to the voice, but the whole is dragged down by muddled thinking.
One final point on voice as investigator: I cited this comment from Donna Vorreyer, a Whale Sound reader, previously (emphasis mine):
[...] everything was tinged by the knowledge that I would be reading this poem aloud. It heightened my attention to sound in the poem, to phrasing - I started to think immediately about where the stresses may be, where the pauses may be, things I don't necessarily consider with every poem I read. It made me question whether this type of deep, sound-oriented reading could enhance my understanding of some poetry that I have traditionally found difficult to engage.
It absolutely can. My first experience of 'voice as teacher' in this sense came when I read Amy King's poem A Hole In My Name for Whale Sound. The poem's narrative is not traditionally straightforward and initially, on the page, it honestly meant relatively little to me. What was this poem saying? The reading voice needs to grasp an emotional narrative that in turn transmits the imperatives that drive the reading, that dictate pauses, stresses, tone, etc. I recorded the poem several times and it was only on the fourth reading that I realized I was in fact basing my reading on an emotional narrative that had only became apparent to me through the voicing of the poem. It may not have been the exact emotional narrative that drove the poet, but it was cohesive, believable and it was not available to me without voice. Since then, I am less daunted by submissions that look difficult, if not impossible, to 'understand.' Though my head may not always, my voice will, in some organic way, understand.