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August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

Reading Poems Out Loud, Or Not

I think I just realized something. I enjoy reading poems out loud. But I only enjoy it when I am the one reading. Stuff like this—A. Van Jordan reading a poem called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—it’s like, it loses all of its poetry somehow. Gone. Drained.

Even a poet I love as much as Billy Collins—to hear him reading his stuff is just not edifying. I can barely hear how it’s poetry, and not just an odd string of words.

Agree? Disagree? Am I missing a gene?

(The A. Van Jordan link is via Swindle, a neat poetry aggregator. Well, kinda neat. I like the idea, but the links are so devoid of context I can’t always muster the interest to click on any. Good titles get me.)

Update: Some great recommendations, and a bonus MP3, in the comments.

August 31, 2009 / Uncategorized


While I agree in general about listening to other people read poetry (even poets), the recordings that Wallace Stevens made toward the end of his life mesmerize me. He sounds the very Jehovah of poetry.

One of the things about poets reading poetry… Sometimes poets spend a good deal of a reading simply savoring the language rather than actually thinking of it in terms of performance. In those cases, it’s not even an odd string of words: it’s a collection of attractive syllables. And that’s often when, I think, the audience starts to drift away.

Billy Collins has his own quirky delivery, which I generally like. It does put a very distinctive spin on the words, however. His way of reading his poems is often quite different than the way I would read them.

That said, I do have a collection of short poems of my own that are “To Be Read in the Style of Billy Collins.”

Well – poetry out loud serves different functions in different contexts. Sometimes it’s the desire to get a little bit closer to an author. Imagine if we had a recording of Shakespeare, reading Hamlet? I don’t care if we didn’t understand a single word that dude said. It would rock.

Sometimes, it’s the desire to share a communal experience. Readings are speech, not (just) sound. Poetry readings gain a lot, A LOT, from actually being in the room. They gain almost as much from being able to SEE the poet/reader in question – which is why video of a reading is in most cases better than audio alone.

And sometimes it’s the desire to experience the sound of poetry. For the same reasons as above, you EXPERIENCE poetry in a fuller, more sensory way when YOU speak it then when you hear it, especially on an audio recording. The fullness of voice, intonating highly-charged language, radiating in the diaphram AND the ear – it’s just better.

(I have a theory about poetry, that its seduction is actually preverbal – Julia Kristeva called it the semiotic, rather than the symbolic – that it begins with the experience of being soothed as an infant, that fundamental notion of rhythm and sound radiating through your body, in the dark, testifying to a human presence.)

I ALSO think, however – let’s call this the additive theory – that when YOU read poetry aloud, you enjoy it more because you get to hear poetry AND you get to see/read it. Listening to poetry, especially when there’s not much of a dramatic dimension to it, is a drag, ’cause there ain’t no text.

You just have to read the right poets. John Ashbery, for instance, is an amazing reader of his poetry. I daresay you cannot quite understand Ashbery until you hear him reading his own stuff.

Jeff McDaniel. Patricia Smith. Reggie Gibson. Poets who make you believe poetry is meant to be heard, not seen.

Matt Penniman says…

I like listening to certain poets — but oddly, only if I know the poem well. I first read “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in high school, but came back to it for a video project a few years ago. Dylan Thomas’ recording gave it a new life for me, but far more on the fiftieth time through than on the first.

Similarly, Charles Wright’s recording of “Early Saturday Afternoon, Early Evening” as used in the Minus Kelvin piece.

GREAT suggestions all around. I’m going to track down some links.

@Tim, yeah, I think you’ve got it — for me, it’s definitely the words in my eyes and the sound in my ears that makes it work.

@Matt, of course! For the uninitiated — and since MK’s site is no more — here’s “Saturday, Early Afternoon”:

Saturday, Early Afternoon (MP3 link)

Ah yes. That’s a poetry reading I can enjoy.

As one of the editors of Poems Out Loud, I love (love!) a lively debate about the merits of reading poetry aloud. However, I am also called upon to defend the conceit of my site, in addition to taking to heart recommendations for (more?) wonderful readings.

As we all know, creating the rhythm of a line, be it perfect iambic or Walt Whitman or Marie Howe, is half the battle in making a poem. To not hear a poem read aloud is to not know a poem

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