Of poetry, Marianne Moore famously wrote: “I, too, dislike it.” I wonder what she might have said about poetry readings? Moore herself was, I think, a charming reader, but, like her poems, also idiosyncratic. Sometimes the recording is at fault (I have a copy of a reading she gave at the 92nd Street Y with W. H. Auden that is grainy and hard to hear), but sometimes it’s just the way she reads—too quickly in spots, without careful articulation.
Still, it is breathtaking to hear her voice. Hearing poets read can tell you so much about their work that you might not ever catch on the page. I remember understanding (I mean really getting, on a musical level) for the first time the polyvocal nature of so many of James Merrill's poems when I actually heard him do all of the voices. (I also learned that he liked to wear violet socks and Birkenstocks with his blue blazer.)
Some poets are extremely fine readers of their own work—Auden (though I know some folks disagree), Larkin and Bishop (both marvellous, sounding exactly as you’d expect), Geoffrey Hill (simultaneously plummy and fierce), Brooks (delightfully musical), and Berryman (growly and antic).
Some poets are bizarre readers of there own work, but great fun to hear nonetheless—Eliot (so Anglican), Cummings (so Unitarian), and Ginsberg, so wacked out and hip, as in this clip of a poem he wrote while on LSD read to William F. Buckley on Firing Line:
But many poets fail to do justice to their own work—far too many to mention in fact. You will know immediately the kind of thing I mean—when, for example, instead of using the natural music of speech they trot out their “poetry voice.”
It’s what G. Burns Cooper, in his book Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse, calls the Generic American Poetry Contour: “a slight but sustained rise at the end of each line or intonation phrase.” (Hat tip to Natalie Gerber!) It's aternately painfuland hilarious to listen to. Image if Frost read that way:
Nature’s first green is
Her hardest hue to
Her early leaf’s a
But only so an
The up-rising lilt is often accompanied by a breathiness that signals the numinosity of "poetry." The problem is not just that this way of reading creates an irritating repetition in the vocal music; it’s that this arbitrary vocal pattern actually obscures the meaning for the listener by disregarding what Frost called “the sound of sense” (though Frost had something even more profound in mind). As Frost famously explained in an interview with the critic William Stanley Braithwaite, originally published in the Boston Evening Transcript for May 8, 1915:
Words in themselves do not convey meaning, and to [ . . prove] this, which may seem entirely unreasonable to any one who does not understand the psychology of sound, let us take the example of two people who are talking on the other side of a closed door, whose voices can be heard but whose words cannot be distinguished. Even though the words do not carry, the sound of them does, and the listener can catch the meaning of the conversation. This is because every meaning has a particular sound-posture; or, to put it in another way, the sense of every meaning has a particular sound which each individual is instinctively familiar with and without at all being conscious of the exact words that are being used is able to under stand the thought, idea, or emotion that is being conveyed.
Frost worked to get the sounds of sense and of sentence sounds into his writing. What I’m suggesting is that poets should work to preserve the sound of sense in thier performance of the poem (as a generosity to the listener, if nothing else).
The first thing to consider is how sound and sense are linked inextricably--like love and marrage, you can't have one without the other. Listen to this speech from Richard II performed by Richard Burton:
No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
What Burton, like all of the greatest Shakespearean actors, does so brilliantly is guide us though the complicated syntax of Shakespeare’s verse with his voice. Where he means to continue the thought, he raises the pitch of his voice to signal there is more to come. When he wants to let us know that a thought is coming to an end, he drops his voice down to a full stop. (Then there is the brilliant calrity of "How some have been deposed; some slain in war,/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;/ Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd," each phrase lightly stair-stepping down in tone to indicate a list, then ending on the lowest tone with "murder'd"--full stop.)
All of us do this quite naturally when we speak. We all know how to convey the sounds of grammar and syntax with our voices. Conversation would be virtually impossible otherwise. When, however, we fall into the Generic American Poetry Contour, the sense is lost to our listeners. (And, remember, at a reading we only have one fleeting chance to get the sense across!)
Hamlet’s advice still rings true: o'erstep not the modesty of nature. Simply speak the speech. Do less. Just talk. To someone. As if your life depended on it. That's all.
(Tune in tomorrow for “Speak the Speech, Part II”)
Note: I currently teach classes in performing poetry at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the West Chester Poetry Conference (scroll down), and the MFA program at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, CO, in July. (The latter two are currently accepting students!)