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Monday, 10 March 2008

The art and science of reading poetry out loud (with Stephen Hawking)

Whenever I think of poetry readings my mind immediately jumps to Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer:

Harriet, Harriet hard-hearted
Harbinger of haggis
Beautiful, bemused bellicose butcher
He wants you back he screams into
The night air like a fireman going
To a window that has no fire except
The passion of his heart
I am lonely,
It's really hard
This poem sucks

and I try and imagine me standing up there and "performing" a poem and I go, er thanks, but no, thanks. Or, if you want a couple of real-life examples, the ever-so-twee Pam Ayres (still on the go – I wonder how many grannies got her latest collection for Xmas?) and the Dylanesque-looking punk poet John Cooper Clarke (still on the go too – I thought he'd crash and burn years ago). The thing about both of these is that they write humorous verse – radically different – designed to be performed.

Both of these poets is capable of communicating with their target audiences and there is a necessary immediacy to their verse, but I'm not sure you could call either of them a great poet. They choose humour typically because humour is popular, because it engages an audience on an emotional level which is exactly what good poetry should do. This is not to decry what they do. If you ever get a chance to hear Clarke perform 'Evidently Chicken Town' do – if you can handle the 83 expletives. (Actually you can because I've added links at the end of this blog). I say 'perform' to distinguish what he does from simply reading a poem. There is a whopping great difference.

There is a point of view that suggests that by reading his own poem the poet is retaining control of it in some way whereas a poem on page can more easily become the property of the reader. I can get that. It's hard for me to read any of John Cooper Clarke's poetry without hearing his distinctive voice; I also read them a lot faster than I would anyone else's. Strangely enough though my favourite performance of one of his poems was by the actor Christopher Eccleston in the excellent TV play Strumpet which opens with a belting performance of 'Evidently Chicken Town' but then Eccleston is a great actor.

In an interview originally published in The Argotist magazine in August 1996, Adrian Henri, best known as one of the Liverpool poets, makes an interesting point about 'performance poetry':

JS: Now in performance poetry it's the personality of the poet, theatricals, gimmicks, which are the main thing whereas spoken poetry, however much the poet is bracketed as a performer, is essentially a communication process.

AH: Yes. Pure Performance poetry often becomes the springboard to something else. I'm thinking of someone like John Hegley who's become an alternative comedian in all but name. That kind of performance poetry is defined almost by what happens to people who do it. Which is not true of other poets; poets who are concerned with writing and their craft but at the same time happen to be rather good at projecting their work.

It's a good point. In my head there is a clear distinction between performers like Clarke and Hegley, entertaining though they are, and regular day-to-day poets like me.

I've only ever been to one poetry reading – as opposed to performance – in my life. It was at The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow. It was 1977. (Now it's the Centre for Contemporary Arts, full of negative space and very little poetry). Unusually, I had been asked to submit a poem to a competition they were running. If memory serves me right the editor of Effie wrote to me to tell me about the request or maybe he submitted the poem on my behalf; it was a long time ago. I didn't win but the top half dozen or so poets got to stand up and read some of their work. My poem got reprinted in a commemorative booklet which I can't find any more so I couldn’t even take a guess at what the poem was. Suffice to say, I wouldn't have been up there for very long. I've never written anything longer than an A4 page and most of my poems from that time were lucky to make ten lines and ten short lines at that.

I found the experience a strange one. This was the first time in my life I had been around other poets (scarily ordinary looking) and, not one to push myself forward, I don't think I spoke to anyone and left as soon as the do was over. I didn't much like the poems that got read but I've never really enjoyed hearing poetry read out loud. The teachers used to make us do it at school and you know how that goes. I like to take my time over a poem, re-read it, think about it. At a poetry reading you get one shot at it and it's never enough. I have the same problem with a lot of modern classical music; works by the likes of Mark-Anthony Turnage or Harrison Birtwistle are good examples. You can't just listen to them and get them; there's too much going on. I've pointed out that performance poetry works well if it's humorous but a poem is not a joke. Most jokes are one off experiences; you don't go away afterwards and meditate on them.

I've been to book launches where the author read a bit out of their forthcoming release. They were okay because I could buy the thing and read it at my leisure. I've never thought of writing as a social thing. If someone reads a poem, am I responding to the poem or the performance? Writing is private. Reading should be also. There, I've said it.

I'm not the only poet who isn't crazy about hearing the sound of his own voice. Philip Larkin didn’t either:

I don’t give readings, no, although I have recorded three of my collections, just to show how I should read them. Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much— the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing there and their and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the “score” that doesn’t “come to life” until it’s “performed.” It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.

(If you are interested there's a news report concerning the recent discovery of a set of tapes where Larkin reads all the poems from his three collections from Sky News).

I'm sure the pair of us are in the minority but, what the heck, we miserable gits need to stick together. I've heard Larkin read his poetry in that lugubrious, dare I say glutinous, baritone of his and I've heard a few others – Ezra Pound jumps to mind – but mostly I've hated them. They can't read to save themselves. Simply because a person knows how to write doesn't mean he knows how to orate. It's not that I'm afraid of crowds or shy – I've done a fair bit of public speaking in my time – but I personally don't think of a poem as something that needs to exist off the paper, which is strange because I quite often read my prose out loud to make sure it flows; rarely do I feel the need to do that with a poem.

And yet there are poets who enthuse about reading poetry out loud, even taking it as far as comparing it to a religious experience:

I don’t go to church, so poetry readings are the closest thing I have to a communal spiritual experience. I think something happens when we come together and honour one another with our attention and break breath. I sometimes define poetry as “chiselled breathing”, but maybe for the purpose of metaphor, the better word is “leavened”. Poetry is leavened breathing. - Jeffrey McDaniel, Poetry Foundation article

I guess I think that reading poetry out loud is an art form all by itself. It is its own medium and, as such, has its own laws and possibilities, different from silent reading to oneself. Some poets write good poems and also channel poems out loud very well. Some poets are better at one or the other. Channelling poems out loud (giving poetry readings), for me anyway, enacts a kind of service not entirely unlike the service poems provide. That is, if successful, a poetry reading can create the zikr or zakhor, that remembrance of our primordial condition of embeddedness in God-head, which certain ancient poetic communities practised. – Li-Young Lee

I'll be honest, I don't get it, but then I've never had a firm grip on spirituality or metaphysics; I have enough trouble coping with things intellectually or emotionally.

I'm very serious about my writing, as you all know, but I'm not so serious as to dig my feet in and say that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. The main problem, certainly round here, is I never hear about poetry readings; maybe if I'd been exposed to more I'd have developed an appreciation. Sure there's the odd one in Edinburgh or some place but who the hell is going to travel all the way Edinburgh to listen to poetry? I'm really an antisocial pig when all's said and done.

Let me leave you with a few clips of the aforementioned John Cooper Clarke. If you click on nothing else do check out the Stephen Hawking one but it'll make more sense if you listen to the first clip, the one at The Comedy Club, first.

'Evidently Chicken Town' at The Comedy Clubsans music (much better) but the sound is a little rough.

A slightly cleaned-up 'Chicken Town' from the film Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt.

Stephen Hawking is a fan. Just click on the link – you know you want to.

'I Married a Monster from Outer Space'

'I Mustn't Go Down to the Sea Again' - from the film Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt. This was new to me – not quite so frenetic though I have no idea what the couple are all about.

'Beasley Street' – an Old Grey Whistle Test performance with a backing band.

And, as a total contrast, for all the grannies out there, Pam Ayres reads 'Akaroa Cannon' on Countdown – you have been warned. My wife had never heard of her and you should have seen her face when I played the clip. Is it just me or did Benny Hill not used to do a character who talked just like her?


Lostcheerio said...

We used to make such brutal fun of the poets in graduate school (we were, of course, fiction writers and therefore QUITE different). They all did that upspeak kind of thing where the voice? goes up? at the end? And there were a lot of crows doing the job of symbolizing our depraved culture.

I think your answer is in your post already: Humor is key, but it can come before or after, not just during the poem. You should have no problem with that. The only thing that makes a poetry reading awful is when someone takes it so bloody seriously.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Lydia. It's an interesting point you make. I had never really considered that the humour could surround the poems but it also bothers me a little that social poetry – if I can call it that – somehow feels it needs humour to make it more palatable. I'm not saying that it can't be but there should be room for both. Some people will go and see The Pirates of Penzance for a night out whereas others would prefer Schoenberg's Moses und Aron; there's room in this world for both. It's not that I think poetry should be taken more seriously, I just don't think that it should be taken too lightly.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Jim, this post resonated with me for a couple of reasons. First, I have Caedmon's recordings of famous poets (W.H.Auden, W.B.Yeats, Robert Graves, others) reading their own poetry. They all suck. It's interesting to hear their different emphasis on phrases and words but--they all suck. The poems sound horrible.

Second, I've had the opportunity to read my short stories aloud on more than one occasion. I've done some voice acting, but still there's something about reading my own words--I'm sure I sucked too.

Jim Murdoch said...

This is the point I was making about John Cooper Clarke's performances compared to that by the actor Christopher Eccleston and I so wished I could have added a link showing him in Strumpet because the performance is so powerful. It is a combination of a great poem – and love it or loathe it, 'Definitely Chicken Town' gets its message across – and a great performance. It's interesting to hear poets read their work – I was listening to Sylvia Plath only a few days ago – but that is all it is. I'll be honest I like the way Larkin reads. If anyone was going to read his work then his kind of drab, rainy-day voice is perfect but I regard him as very much an exception.

I also hate my own voice, Conda. I'm used to public speaking and have no fear of it but I grue when I hear my voice recorded. It is nothing like the rich baritone I hear in my head and THAT is the voice I hear when I hear my poems something I am incapable of reproducing. There is also the fact that, once my poems are out in the world, then they become collaborations between me and their readers and so if other people choose to read them out loud then who am I to kick up a fuss?

Dave King said...

Hi Jim,
Good to be back - at last!
Your post brought back a few memories. Unlike you, I have never been to a performance poetry event, but I did (like you) get drawn into a couple of poetry readings., like you, because I had entered a local competition, once on the spur of the moment and then because I was asked. I can't say I enjoyed reading my work. I have this conviction that poems should never be read by the author or by an actor. What I did enjoy, though, was the children's section and hearing them read their contributions. They had a freshness and an originality that the others mostly did not have.

Jim Murdoch said...

Nice to have you back, Dave. You're mistaken I'm afraid I've never been to a performance poetry event – I've only ever seen John Cooper Clarke on TV – but I can see why you might enjoy hearing children read, as long as they were young enough to still be endearing.

BT Cassidy said...

I was lucky ernough to see John Cooper Clark perform at The Big Day Out in Adleaide last year, and despite his low ranking on the bill, was blown away. He's got the staggering energy and drive of the most virulent of punk rockers, but has enough heart to sway any listener to pause and reflect- a fantastic reccomendation to any poets out there = )

Gabriel Orgrease said...

Over the years I have attended quite a number of 'name' and obscure poets reading. At times I have driven considerable distance... in particular during a blizzard to attend an evening with Robert Bly. I have also done performance many times, though I no longer do this. I got tired of trying to resonate off the bar tender.

There are a whole lot of different ways for poetry to be delivered, on the page or in performance. I do not feel that there is any qualitative difference between one and another any more than I do not feel that there is a qualitative difference between one form or performance of music. I may at any one time prefer certain forms and delivery, but in general it seems to me a multiplicity of variation to celebrate.

I do admit that there are more outstanding examples in any form and delivery, with poetry, as with music. Some folks just go a whole lot further on their tangent than others.

A whole lot about poetry performance has to do with the setting and the media of delivery.

I used to enjoy going out and standing on a street corner and shouting poetry. I admire street screamers. That is a different kind of delivery that one learns than say in a nice room with comfortable chairs, a bottle of plum wine and a fire in the fireplace with a group of friends in attendance.

I have also staged a number of poetry readings over the years, that has always been an interesting adventure. The Feminist poets drove a long way in a snow storm (for whatever reason I remember the snowy ones best?) and were pissed at me for being a male. The Prison Poets were pissed at me for being free and exploiting them. Nobody every made any money at this promoting and it was worse, though also much more exciting, than being a literary magazine publisher.

Before the show there is always the anxiousness to see how many people one has been able to attract to witness a gaggle of self-interested poets belch off their work.

My most provocative reading was to an audience of 200. It was staged off a hay wagon and we had all of us been into party for the entire day and it was a performance piece, with musician collaborators to provide back-up (acoustic) with a sound system. The piece was done on a warm summer evening with the sound of my voice echoed through the sound system off the surrounding hills. That was the one and only performance of that piece. We had spent weeks rehearsing.

One reason I don't read is that I have found people have enough trouble, as I get older, relating to my poetry on the page and it leads me to consider that they won't get it any better when I read it aloud.

Now, if you all come over to visit and you bring your poems I will be willing to share in the voice.

My reaction to John Cooper Clarke's Evidently Chicken Town is that I cannot understand WTF he is saying so for me it comes out as an equivalent to a riddim like a Tibetan chant, only shorter. From the pure musicality of the performance it is ok, not by my estimate outstanding, but ok. I read the words on the page, I laugh and move on to something else.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Gabe. I think part of the problem with John Cooper Clarke, especially with 'Chicken Town' is that the audience probably know it as well as he does they're heard it so many times. I listened to a lot of the recordings on-line and some of them were truly awful and not as I remember him. He's always delivered his party pieces at a fair rate of knots but I suspect at this stage in his career he's just going through the motions; he must really hate performing 'Chicken Town' after 30 years. I did enjoy 'I Mustn't Go Down to the Sea Again' because a) it was new to me and b) the performance wasn't quite so frenetic. He really was very well-known in the UK in his heyday. He even did a TV advert for Kellogs!

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I have been to many poetry readings. They are frequently painful. Most poets couldn't bring a poem to life to save their own -- and out in the audience, man, you feel like you're dying.

On the other hand, yes, a poetry reading can be wonderful. I help run a reading series in San Francisco and last week we had two readers who were just excellent -- the writing was good, the performance was good. It just felt right.

I have read my own work aloud many times. One of the reasons I got into poetry was because I enjoyed performing and I didn't like acting. My poems are often funny, though not really joky.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Glenn, I sometimes regret not living in San Francisco – it reminded me a lot of Glasgow when I was there, only drier. The only problem, me being me, is that I'd still probably not go, misanthropic so-and-so that I am.

Rachel Fox said...

Coming to this one very late...just came via your link.

I think it is as simple as some poets like reading their poems out to an audience and do it well...some don't. It doesn't mean they have to be a particular type of poet necessarily (I have heard some very good, very serious poems read aloud very well as well as good, funny pieces).

I have watched and heard some poets who do not do their poems any favours by reading or performing them and I have heard others who do a great job - bring the poems to life, engage the audience, make them think/laugh/cry, make people want to buy the book... Personally I love reading my poems to an audience but I don't call it performing (although I suppose there is a hint of performance to it...) and even though some of the poems have humour in them I don't think of myself as a comedian (Jeez the pressure to be funny..couldn't bear that!). I don't expect every poet to enjoy that side of things but I do...but then there are other parts of the 'job' I like less (magazine submissions, competitions, writing groups to name but a few). We all have our strengths and weaknesses!

The love child of Pam Ayres and JCC now there's a subject for a poem.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have little doubt, Rachel, that I would be able to read my poems before an audience with little trouble - I'm a more than competent public speaker - but the thing is I never wrote my poems to be read aloud. That they could be is academic. They could be folded up into paper planes and chucked out the window. Reading a poem you gain the auditory experience but you lose the visual one unless the audience is sitting with a copy of the poem in front of them which is unlikely. I've always viewed reading a poem as a solitary thing, private and I'm not sure how that would work with a load of people around me. Listening to someone read I'd be forced to contend with their choices of pitch, pace and power and I'm not sure I care too much for that.

Rachel Fox said...

I do kind of know what you mean - there are certainly some poems (by other poets) that I like to read quietly to myself in my head and I have no desire to hear them read aloud. Also, whilst I do really enjoy reading/performing myself, I am not a poetry reading junkie or anything. I go to readings by other poets quite rarely and cannot do this go-to-a-festival-and-see/hear-poet-after-poet-after-poet.
I have tried and it gives me a HUGE headache. For me I can only take in a couple of readings-type events at a time or my brain starts to blur and frazzle. In the same way I like it when poets only read a few poems per reading really - if they read and read and read without much of a break I just stop taking it in. Poor concentration? Maybe. Or maybe I'm still thinking about the first or second poem and they're onto the tenth. Personally I talk, sing, waffle....between poems quite a bit so they don't just come at you bam, bam, bam.

Jim Murdoch said...

Poor concentration, Rachel? I don't think that's it. I just don't think poetry works poem after poem after poem. I find it hard to read poems like that let alone listen to them. I normally read one or two at a time. That's where the Internet is good because I can do that and take time over my reading. I think poems need time and that's one thing I hate about readings, you get one shot and then it's done.

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