Poetry Readings: Inhabiting the Poem

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From December, 2009

Thinking about what makes for a good reading—not so much poems written with performance in mind, but the poetry written to be seen, to be read from the page.

For a long time I was turned off by readings. I hated what I call the dreaded poet’s voice, that convention that dominated (and still does in some circles)–where every line ends in a rising inflection—a dull, utterly unnatural and unmusical Sing Song. It’s a style that makes every poem and every poet sound the same, no matter how different they might be on the page. Happily, t’s an affliction most Philly poets have abandoned. The lesson here is that there’s no set of rules, no one way to do it: homogenization is deadly. The enemy of poetry. Every poet—and every poem—deserves to be rendered in a way that gives the audience some sense of its unique, inner voice. In practical terms, what does that mean?

A poem exists on the page waiting to be delivered from silence—whether in solitude and heard only by the mind, read aloud to oneself, or presented before an audience. In that way it’s analogous to a musical score, and like musical notation, bringing it to life assumes a certain amount of knowledge and training–and I’m not thinking here about explication, interpretation, decoding—but about awakening the voice in our imagination, in the throat, on our tongue—and most important—in our breathing. This is a physical act—where inspiration has a real and literal meaning—giving the poem the breath of life, to body it forth.

We learn how to read—that is—to hear a poem–through all the poems we have read before and through those vocalizations we carry in memory, as we learn to sing by hearing others sing, as we first try out our own voice through what we have heard before, through the music that has found a home within us. But hearing the music and being able to bring it to life for others are different skills, different gifts. Here the analogy of poetry to music may be strained, though perhaps not so much as it might seem—not if we think of the musical score through the mind of a musician, for whom there is always more music latent in the notation than any or all performances can ever manifest. So too with the reading of a poem—and here the point to keep in mind is that the fullness of the poem, as of a song or symphony or tune in the hands of a jazz musician, has another side: that the reading or performance is never complete—that there is always more left behind, left out, and with the greatest performances, you know that, you sense it; an absence communicated by the very mastery of the interpretation—which by its perfection suggests its incompleteness… that there are yet other interpretations, other ways to perform the piece–a waiting fullness not communicated by mechanical virtuosity or from a struggling beginner. There you hear the failure… but nothing of the unrealized music.

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Let me see if I can take this as a model. A good reading, a strong reading, leaves out more than it delivers. A strong reading is not measured alone by the ability of the reader to capture and move the audience, but also by what she is able to communicate of the deficit—to suggest what remains on the page, remains to be discovered in another reading—whether in silence or voiced. This is why I seldom find readings by actors satisfying; the way they tend to overdetermine a particular interpretation, their own idiosyncratic way of hearing the voice tends to smother alternate possibilities, caging the imagination rather than releasing it for the listener.

A good reading is not necessarily dramatic. Dylan Thomas, for all his vocal gifts and the power of his presence, made it virtually impossible to read, recite or hear his poems in any other voice but the one he used in performance and recordings. No writer, no artist owns their work once it’s completed and made public. The poem has a life that is greater than the poet, evoking associations, ideas, feelings that will be renewed and recreated for everyone who encounters it, and of a range and scope—if it’s a good poem–which the poet cannot possibly imagine or anticipate. A just reading, then—gives the audience a sense of how the poet hears the work, but also releases it to and for the listeners—it is not a display, but an invitation, a meeting.

There is a certain ineffable quality to the best reading. I think of how CA Conrad, for instance—inhabits the poems he reads, inhabits, but does not dominate. His style is his own, and entirely in sync with the poems. Inimitable. Unavailable as a convention one might borrow and pass around as a medium for homogenization. There’s not much one can say about how to do this—you know it when you hear it. But there are more purely mechanical aspects—skills that one can talk about and work on in timing and delivery. Too many poets stand in front of an audience as though they were reading to themselves—making too little effort to listen through the ears of their listeners; they may read too softly to be heard, or too rapidly, not giving you time to take in a line or phrase before the next. They may neglect the importance of the pause… rattling on and depriving the words of their surrounding silence. The physicality of language is important, you don’t want to lose the stutter and clack or ebb and flow—this is not about acting: this is speaking, articulating physical sounds. These are the kind of things that poets might benefit from working on together. Reading and listening to each other. Workshopping.

“How did this sound?” “Now you read my poem and I’ll read yours” “Here’s something I wanted to do… what do you think? “Am I loud enough?” “Reading too fast?”

For the love of our poetry… maybe we can help one another to make the experience of our readings as good as they can be—to take some of the care and energy we put into the writing, and put it into making ourselves even better as readers. Who knows… it might come to pass that we can attract more people to our readings than we thought possible–an audience made up of more that other poets, family and intimate friends!

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