Poetry Out Loud

Cipriano wrote an interesting comment on my post about poetry from yesterday; here’s part of it:

Secondly, I too, prefer to visually SEE a poem, rather than hear it being read out loud. Also, I detest reading aloud, any of my own poems, mostly because how they visually APPEAR [how they are lined out] is as important to me, as what they say, and what they sound like.

I generally assume that poetry is meant to be read out loud, that its origin lies in an oral culture and that this origin has shaped the poetic tradition we know today. I know there are exceptions to this idea — that there are poets who prefer to have their work read rather than listened to, just as there are some plays that the playwright didn’t intend to be performed, even though the vast majority of plays are written for the stage. I’m not sure that analogy works, actually, since performance seems more closely related to plays than oral reading is to poetry. But my point is that I do tend to think of poetry as best experienced out loud.

But I do like Cipriano’s point that seeing a poem can add to its meaning. Seeing where a poet ends the lines and breaks up the stanzas matters (although I can’t always tell you why it matters). And certainly the line breaks don’t always (or even often) come through in an oral reading. I’m not quite sure how one should read the line breaks — I mean, whether one should pause at the end of a line or continue on if the phrase or the sentence continues and there’s no punctuation. Is there a consensus on this? I usually compromise on this matter by making a very short, barely perceptible pause at the line’s end if there’s no ending punctuation, and a longer, more dramatic pause if there is. But I’m not sure what the “rule” is, if there is one.

Then, of course, there are those poems that create a specific visual effect like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” a poem that looks like wings on the page (check out the link for a picture of what the poem looks like in a 1633 edition). Or there are poems like this one from Susan Howe where the words are scattered all over the page, some of them sideways and upside down. It’s not clear at all how one could possibly read that poem out loud.

So perhaps I’m too quick to associate poetry, especially contemporary poetry, with the spoken word.  The picture is more complex than that.

By the way, check out this video of a Billy Collins poem, over at Chekhov’s Mistress.


Filed under Books, Poetry, Reading

10 responses to “Poetry Out Loud

  1. Cam

    I think that both reading and hearing a poem is helpful to its understanding. I recently posted a link to Yeats reading ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’. I had read this poem numerous times, but never heard Yeats perform it. The reading yielded up an entirely different layer of understanding. Another poem that I knew for years (and detested) was ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. Recently, I stumbled upon a recording of Tennyson reading his poem. Besides being blown away by realizing that Tennyson lived long enough to have his voice recorded, I was amazed how hearing it as it was intended — instead of in the dreadful sing-song way every 9th grader was forced to recite it — gave me a new appreciation for it. It still isn’t my favorite, but I could appreciate how Tennyson was using meter and rhyme in that poem. I won’t say that hearing the poem in either case was necessary to understand it, nor do I think that one way is more favored over the other in all circumstances, but reading and listening can provide a different paths into the poem.


  2. Yes, I was thinking of poets like Apollinaire (whose poetry was laid out typographically to look like the object he was describing – rain, or a fountain or a postcard) or Mallarme who scattered his lines across the page in seemingly random formations. I guess ee. cummings did his lower case thing to be looked at as well. It’s interesting, isn’t it, to think of this dimension in poetry. It could only have happened in the modern age, though, when the formality of poetry was turned on its head and printers actually could create the right effects.


  3. What limited experience I have with poetry does seem to suggest the visual experience of poetry is enhanced — or at least more explored with modern poetry.

    I am reading Robertson Davies right now, and he wrote something about how speed-reading teachers hate the inner vocalisation when reading – because it slows down the processing of text.

    A modern reader (what’s us, I suppose) are now more attuned towards visual scanning. A lot of our reading online is essentially visual scanning. So the visual text, as opposed to the audio text, catches our attention first. But there is always the risk of superficial scansion.

    Maybe that is why so many modern readers have problem with poetry – especially epic poems of the Romantics. We are too used to the quick reading that we can’t switch as easily to “listen” to the traditional verses.

    Listening to poetry, or at least taking the time to vocalised it internally, sounding out the rhythm and metre – forces a reader to really take time with the poem. It slows us down, to pause, to follow the rhythm set by the poet.

    No wonder we have so little time for poetry.


  4. Both visual and aural are important factors for me. Some extreme visual contortions annoy me as too contrived, but subtle and skilled visual arrangement is both pleasing and helpful. I love seeing meaning reflected in arrangement, in even the most unobtrusive manner; but I love e.e. cummings more obvious line arrangements as well– especially this one:

    I heard Yeats read The Lake Isle (found it somewhere online) and was so glad that I’d read it many times and loved it long before hearing his reading. Very strange. Yet, sometimes until a poem is heard, things just don’t fall into place; the intonation, timing, emphasis, rhythm all matter. Some people don’t like poetry until they learn to read it in the way Orpheus mentions–with that internal vocalization.

    But I do cringe when someone reads a poem aloud that doesn’t agree with MY internal audio version!


  5. I think poetry is meant to be seen and heard, but that it doesn’t truly come alive until it is heard, especially if you can hear the author read it, then you know for sure how the line breaks should be accounted for. Like the others, I love Yeats’s reading of The Lake Isle. It is such a beautiful poem anyway, but his voice adds to much more.


  6. See how complicated this is? 🙂 I do like the visual aspect of poems on the paper, though. Not sure how I’d approach the Howe poem, but the Herbert is quite nice. I suppose there must be experimental poetry (the Howe?) just like experimental prose. Interesting poetry posts. They make me want to pull out a book of poems now.


  7. How fascinating subject! As a student I hated when we had to learn a poem by heart and recite it aloud in front of others, it was the worst humiliation. That’s how I became favorable to reading poetry on paper and was more attentive to form. But recently I was introduced to slams and poetic contests in bars and the guy who runs my writing group just knows how to pronounce a poem well, so I’m now in the middle of the road. I guess it depends on the poem.


  8. Cam — what a lovely experience! I would love to hear that poem read by Tennyson. It’s great to have come to a new appreciation (if not liking) of the poem’s rhythm and meter from hearing it read out loud. Yes, reading and listening are two different ways into the text — that makes sense.

    Litlove — yes, great examples. And you’re right that such experimentation is only possible in our age of print. This reminds me of the problem people who make audiobooks sometimes have — how to you read footnotes, for example? Or, how would you read the Susan Howe poem out loud? Sometimes the print experiments just can’t translate.

    Dark Orpheus — what a great argument for reading poetry out loud! Because it forces us to slow down and actually hear it. I know when I read poetry, I can feel it slowing me down, as I work hard to understand it. It feels almost meditative, and I like reading poetry for that reason.

    Jenclair — thanks for the link. The link I gave to the George Herbert poem included a discussion by 18C people on whether techniques like his were worthy or not — they were echoing your arguments. Interesting that people back then had the same response!

    Stefanie — I should hunt down that reading! I wonder, though, if we should assume that the author is the one to decide how it should be read — is that always up to the author, or is it up to individual readers?

    Danielle — yes, there’s experimental poetry, and Howe is definitely a good example. I took a class in experimental poetry, and it was interesting, but I didn’t always know what was going on!

    Smithereens — I think asking students to recite poems in front of others is hard — unless they signed up for a class specifically in reading literature out loud (I took such a class in college and had fun with it). I can see why that experience would turn you away!


  9. hepzibah

    I really think that poetry is meant to be vocalized, for that’s when it is infused with its greatest beauty and meaning. Words on a page is nice, but its not the same as giving a voice to those words, which are waiting to be heard and understood. What do you think? 🙂


  10. Oh, good question. I think both. As readers we each get to read the poem in the way that has the most meaning for us. But I think hearing the author read it in the manner that it means most to them, helps us–me–as a reader too by providing more nuance and additional understanding which ultimately makes my reading richer.


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