If you can keep your head, while Dennis Hopper recites Rudyard Kipling’s “If” on the Johnny Cash Show, then you are a better man than me, my son. Check it out:
The poem (still wildly popular in England) and Hopper are both quite good. Personally, I have been unsuccessful thus far in recruiting celebrities to recite my work on television. My fallback is to read the poems myself, occasionally in public. There's an open mic near me that I like called Carmine Street Metrics, though it takes place on Ave. B (after getting bounced from the Bowery Poetry Club last year). If I have a new poem, I like to try it out there. Reading a poem out in front of an audience has become an important step in finishing it, or in seeing if it is, in fact, finished.
When, several years ago, I started teaching a class in performing poetry (it’s basically an acting class for poets), what struck me most was that performing a poem invariably led to revision. But testing the poem on the voice—where, more and more, I’ve come to feel the poem really lives, i.e., in its spoken music—the rough spots become more appaent. I can easily hear places where the rhythm falters, where the clarity and precision of the expression are obscured.
Not surprisingly, people are often much better at reading other people’s work than at reading their own. The difficulty of presenting one’s own poems is two-pronged, I think. On the one hand, our own poems are so personal, so close to home, so connected to our sense of self-worth that it can be terrifying to present them to an audience. (Even if one's poetry is not autobiographical, it is a charged expression that can be ticklish to read in public.)
And, on the other hand, the poem may have gone cold for us, written, as it was, sometimes months or years earlier. It reminds me of the wonderful passage in G. K. Chesterton’s book on Robert Browning: “There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: 'When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.' ”
The fact is that, over time, we lose touch with the emotions that gave rise to the poem; we become dull to the very intensities of sound and meaning that we were at pains to include in the poem. In order to give the poem its due in performance, we have to reawaken our emotional connection to the words.
It’s just what we would do if we were called upon to read out the work of another poet, so why not do it with out own work. I’ve gone on too long here, so I won’t get into specific exercises at this point. For an unbeatable example of how to break down the sense of a verse passage and find hidden in each word both meaning and feeling, one cannot do better than this excerpt from John Barton’s “Playing Shakespeare” (the book of the same name is an invaluable text for poets as well as actors). Watch as, at about 2:10, Ian McKellen begins to go word by word through “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”:
(Tomorrow and tomorrow, a look at Geroge Green's poem "Bangladesh" from his new book Lord Byron's Foot.)