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Monday, April 14, 2014

Poet Voice

I've noticed that sing-song up and down "poet voice" reading style more and more. Even poets I like (their work and them personally) seem to rely on it as their default. Though it seems less prose-like and hence more musical, it really reduces musicality by reducing the intonational variety to one damned pattern. Every stressed word is an up and every unstressed is a down. POETS: STOP DOING THIS. Couldn't this be just Creative Writing 101? (Except the teacher probably does it too.)


Anonymous said...

I really dislike that way of reading. It is done to signify that what one is hearing is a poem and that the person reading has an MFA, or something like that. Dull, though.

Thomas said...

I think Mairead Byrne got it right when she suggested poems should be performed more like standup comedy. As an alternative, I suggested reading them off tele-prompters like newsanchors.

I mean this in a pretty strong sense. Poems should perhaps be written to allow for an interesting performance, i.e., reading. But there is of course also the view (which many poetry readings clearly provide evidence for) that poems can only ever succeed or fail on the page. The reading out loud part is just a (strangely) necessary inconvenience for the poet and the audience.

Jonathan said...

Then a significant part of the ideology of poetry would have to be sacrificed. We no longer care about the sonic reality of the poem! It would be a great liberation for some poets who never cared about it, or who are tired of pretending that their poems have an effective existence in performance.

Thomas said...

What's your sense of the status of that ideology (caring about the sonic reality of a poem) today? How many poets write their poems with the same awareness of voice that, say, John Berryman seems to have had.

We can argue about how good the performance is, and compare him to Pound and Stevens, but I think in all these cases, once you hear it, you realize that the writing did not happen without an image of the performance in mind.

We can imagine better performances, of course. I think I could perform Pound's and Berryman's poems more effectively than they did. Gould probably played Bach better than Bach.

Jonathan said...

I don't think I can perform my poetry optimally, but I think I could teach an actor to do so.

The Berryman is interesting: I've never heard him. It is bad but oddly appropriate. It is stilted, but not in the sing-song way.

Thomas said...

Yes, the demand that the composition be effective in performance does not mean that the composer should have to a good performer.

Here's one: Allen Ginsberg reading "America", but you think to yourself he should have let Lenny Bruce do it.

Jonathan said...

Jorie Graham does it


Go to 34:40.

a MAN aBOUT to EAT his MORNing's SLICE / who SITS.

Every capitalized syllable is at the exact same pitch! So the iambic rhythm is emphasized, yes, but at the expense of any speech rhythm.

Thomas said...

What do you think of this:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen" begins with a really entertainingly performed story. (The narrator even has say "He is not primarily a standup comic.") But then he performs "Prayer for Messiah" in another setting, and this time it's pretty much as poetry-reading-esque as possible. Is the audience to blame? They seem very different.

Y. Smerdis said...

How would you recommend working on the skill of reciting poetry, and how would this vary across the languages that you know? How does one cultivate the discernment to come up with a spoken pattern that is responsive to the particular prosodic, syntactic and semantic (etc.) features of a given poem? Are there any resources on this subject that you could recommend?

Granted this is an enormous question. Here are a couple more specific questions. When I run through a poem with frequent enjambment, such as Leopardi's 'L'infinito' I catch myself rushing through the line-breaks. Is this the correct way to do it? A decisive pause at the end of each line seems almost parodic and mechanical, a little like the Poet Voice you mention above. Perhaps it takes a bit more acting to pull it off, to break off as though striving to think up the right words. How would you recommend treating enjambment in syllabic verse?

And how would a good reciter manage Góngora's more disjointed Latinate syntaxes?