P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.25 - June 2018
Poetry Aloud, Part 6:
A Highly Opinionated but Nevertheless
Guide to Reading Poetry Aloud
A Highly Opinionated but Nevertheless
Guide to Reading Poetry Aloud
Like most people, I vividly remember my first time, which I imagine to any outside observer would have seemed awkward, poorly performed, and ultimately unmemorable. I am referring, of course, to reading my poems in public. The occasion was a celebration for my college literary magazine, which had printed some of my work. (Needless to say, I was also on the editorial staff.) I no longer can say what poems I read that night, but I sure do recall how it felt. I was terrified.
Now I wasn’t exactly a stranger to public speaking. In high school I competed on the debate team. I delivered a speech at our high school graduation. And for a number of years I was a teenage stage magician as well. I got some jitters any time I stepped onstage, as any performer will, but I had spoken in public fairly often. Yet this was far worse, a new level of stage fright. I was about to read my own poetry in front of an audience which included not only fellow students but experts—some of the same professors who had been teaching me the poetry of Keats, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Dickinson. I probably had too high an opinion of my early poems, but I wasn’t a complete fool. I knew that I wasn’t Robert Frost, either as poet or as performer.
So of course I downed a few too many beers in preparation for my ordeal. It may have eased my terror but I can say with absolute certainty that it didn’t improve my performance. It never does. So in one way I’m glad that I can’t remember many details about that evening, because I’m sure it wouldn’t be a flattering recollection.
One thing I do recall, however, is that once I had staggered to the lectern and turned to face my audience, I felt a strange sense of calm come over me. Might have been the alcohol talking—no doubt in part it was—yet there was something else, too. This was an outdoor event, it was after dark, and there was just one tiny light on the lectern to read by. This light had the wonderful effect of blinding me to the entire audience. Those disapproving faces I had been imagining would be glaring back at me—all vanished as soon as I deposited my poems under the light and looked up.
At the same time, I had an epiphany, wordless at the time but which I think I can now articulate. For what was I truly scared of, deep down? It was those imagined disapproving faces, really. After all, I liked my poems, and I loved poetry. But like anyone else I feared rejection, mockery, judgment. That was my big fear. I suspect it is so for many if not most of us. So when I turned to face all these embodied fears and saw . . . nothing, just my poems under a little puddle of light in the center of the vast dark of night, I felt that surpassing calm.
That was, in a sense, my first practical lesson in the art of reading poetry aloud. I still think it’s a good one, maybe the primary one. In my years of teaching I witnessed hundreds of students afflicted with stage fright, sometimes paralyzingly so, when asked to present their work aloud. Sometimes they froze or stammered simply when called on to recite from our text in class. There are many remedies to stage fright, including the oft-cited advice to imagine the audience naked, which I’m afraid has never worked for me. What has most consistently helped me is remembering that long-ago night when I turned to face that audience I couldn’t see.
Without a crowd of faces staring at me, I was suddenly and simply faced with a page of words. I knew how to read them: after all, I had written them. Even if someone out there was scowling or even walking out, I wouldn’t see them. And I must have realized instinctively that no one was going to heckle me. (How many hecklers have you encountered at poetry readings?) It was equally unlikely that one of my professors would charge up to me afterward and say, “You know, that really sucked! I’m going to fail you!” The whole audience was, in fact, on my side. They had all chosen to be there. Some were my friends. They liked poetry too.
That’s the first great truth, for me. Generally, no one wants you to fail. If anyone does disapprove of my work or my performance (hey, it could happen!), they mostly won’t make a big stink about it. That may seem like setting the bar a bit low, I know, but I don’t see it that way. For me it’s always been a very liberating thought. If my greatest fear is that I’ll screw up, well, there are ways to prevent that (which I’ll get to shortly). But if my greatest fear is public ridicule, well, it’s just not going to happen. Hasn’t happened to me in the forty-plus years I’ve been reading poetry aloud in front of people. I believe stage fright of this type, like so-called writer’s block, is a problem you talk yourself into. So with the right attitude, you can talk yourself right back out.
That doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing, by any means. There are indeed many ways in which a poetry reading can go wrong (see my January Poetic License, “Why I Hate Poetry Readings” for details: http://www.verse-virtual.org/david-grahams-poetic-license-2018-january-no20.html). This month, drawing on my experience as a teacher and poet who has performed many readings as well as attended countless others, and who furthermore taught a class for years called Poetry Aloud devoted to studying such matters, I’ll offer some concrete suggestions about avoiding the pitfalls. For convenience, and because my opinions in these matters are correct beyond argument, I’ll put these in the form of commands. Let’s assume you’ve been asked to give a poetry reading. Here’s what to do.
(Brief aside: I’ve been guilty of violating every one of these rules, I’m sure, at one point or another. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good rules.)
1. Slow down. If you’re like me, and like many students I’ve known, you’ll tend to speed up when you get nervous. Often when students would read at breakneck pace, it seemed they were doing so to get the trauma over with sooner. That just makes it more of an ordeal for your listeners, of course. I would tell students to practice reading very slowly, and when they felt they’d achieved a good pace, then slow down a bit more. In performance the adrenaline will probably kick in, and you’ll unconsciously go a bit more quickly. But if you’ve rehearsed a slow pace, then it won’t be as much of a problem. There are side benefits, too. I find that the more deliberately I read, the less nervous I feel. Try it if you don’t believe me. I think that speeding up can be both a cause and a result of nerves. You may also find yourself, as I have, reading more effectively, because a slower pace makes you more aware of a poem’s internal rhythms, where the emphases should fall, and indeed which passages might benefit from a little faster tempo. One problem with rushing through is that rhythms all get flattened out to one speedy pace, sacrificing modulation and emphasis. I’m sorry to say that too many spoken word poets these days employ a uniformly rapid-fire style of reading aloud.
2. Did I say rehearse? Yes, I said rehearse. In my early days, reading in front of an audience was so painful that I prepared mostly by dreading it and trying not to think about it. I was so apprehensive I didn’t plan things out, or rehearse. Nor did I time how long things would take to read aloud. Big mistakes. This may seem utterly obvious, but I can’t count how many of my students I saw make the same basic error. As a member of the audience these days, there’s one pet peeve that looms over all others for me: I hate it when it’s clear that a performer hasn’t taken care enough to organize or plan. No musician or actor would perform without rehearsal. Why should a poet? The side-benefit here, it should go without saying, is that you’ll give a better performance for having practiced. A possible exception might be if you are a big-name poet who gives so many readings that you essentially rehearse by giving readings. Maybe so, though I’ve seen enough dismal, disorganized performances by stars to be skeptical. In any case, if you’re a superstar poet, why are you reading me?
Oh, and you famous poets, if you’re reading: you know how you spend a lot of time paging through you own books looking for what poem you might read next? That’s not entertaining. It’s really annoying, on more than one level. It tells your audience exactly how much you value their time.
3. Respect the time limit, then shut up and sit down. No matter what your friends, your spouse, or the event’s host says, no one is sorry if you read a little on the briefer side. They’re lying to you because they love you. Assume that a good portion of your audience does not love you, and have other things they could be doing. Besides, it’s almost a sure thing that if you stop a little short, someone will remark on it, perhaps even saying something like “I wish you had read more poems!” They’re mistaken too. But it’s always nice to hear. In any case, remember Samuel Johnson’s remark about Paradise Lost, a classic of world poetry by anyone’s standards: “None ever wished it longer.” Truth. Your friends won’t tell you this, but one of the most-dreaded sentences out of a poet’s mouth is, “This next one’s a little long, but . . . .” Likewise, one of the happiest moments is when you surprise them by saying, “I’ll read just one more.” And if you read longer than you should in an open mic or multiple reader situation, you are a deeply selfish person who probably doesn’t have the basic sensitivity to write a decent poem in the first place. Go hide your head in shame, and sin no more.
4. Are you naturally funny? OK, then be yourself. If you’re not funny, then by no means cook up humorous things to say in introducing a poem or breaking the ice at the beginning of the reading. It never works, and also it’s probably not funny. Just trust me on this one. Those two people who laugh appreciatively at all your wry remarks? They’re lying also, if not to you, then to themselves. And never, by any means, announce in advance that you are about to read a humorous poem. The old principle applies: if you feel compelled to label something as funny, it’s not.
5. Never apologize. Nerves will get the best of anyone at some point, and as a result you may be tempted to say something dismissive about a poem you are about to read. (“This one’s a little rough, but. . . .” or “I’m still working on the ending of this next poem. . . .”) There’s a very easy fix for that problem: don’t read it if you have any doubts. Just don’t. Modesty and humility are great and appealing virtues, but you are performing your work here. It’s basic respect for the audience either to read something you feel is worthy of their time, or to act as though you are. If you don’t have enough good poems, read some by Walt Whitman to fill up your allotted time. He’s got some fine ones.
6. Never explain. Novice and nervous readers make this mistake all the time. I hasten to say that it’s fine—and welcome—to footnote references that might be obscure, or to talk about what triggered the poem, or to place a poem in context of your other work, or to otherwise put some space between the poems. But it’s absolutely deadly to repeat information that’s in the poem itself, or to summarize themes. That’s almost as bad as announcing that a poem is funny. Give your listeners some credit. I’ve seen even experienced poets fall into this trap. On one memorable occasion, a well-published and award winning writer prefaced a poem by informing us, not too briefly, that the next poem was in persona, not his own voice at all. The speaker, he told us, was supposed to be Pablo Picasso. Then he began the poem, whose first line was—I swear to God—“I am Pablo Picasso.”
7. Did I say “put some space between the poems”? Yes, I sure did. Many poets seem to differ with me on this point, but they’re all wrong, bless their hearts. I’ve attended numerous readings in which the poet just reads poem-poem-poem-poem with barely a pause in between. I call it the machine-gun style. For the life of me I don’t know why poets do this, even though I’ve heard some announce that they want the poems to “speak for themselves,” or that “A good poem needs no explanation.” That’s hogwash, because it’s obviously a false dichotomy. Pausing to make a few remarks between poems is not necessarily the same thing as “explaining” them. I go to a reading for a full experience, not just to hear words pronounced aloud that I could peruse on a page. I look for a sense of the poem’s context. I like to get a feel for the poet’s personality and attitudes toward poetry. I like to have connections made between poems that I might not see myself. I hope to be both challenged and entertained, not subjected to a rapid-fire recitation without the space to savor and reflect. That space, like the pauses in music, is important.
Always remember that a reading is a performance, and pacing is key. You don’t need to be a chatterbox between every poem. If you go to a concert by a masterful folksinger you’ll usually encounter an ebb and flow in the show’s rhythms—slow song followed by a more up-tempo one, a longish anecdote while tuning followed by a couple songs performed without a break, etc. A good folksinger doesn’t just sing and then vanish backstage, but talks to the audience. A good poetry reader will pace his or her show in the same way. (And you’ll sell more books if you do.)
8. Read the way you talk. I keep noting that poetry is a performance, which it is. But for my money, the best readers achieve a style that is simply a more public version of their natural speaking style. If you ever heard the late Philip Levine give a reading, you’ll know what I mean. He read forcefully and quite loudly, but it sounded quite natural in terms of cadence and tone—an extension of his speaking voice. Lucille Clifton was another whose reading style was effective in this way. It’s really the same as with stage actors. You obviously need to be able to project your voice sufficiently to be heard in the back, and you need to enunciate clearly. This will not be exactly the way you speak across the kitchen table. But ideally it should seem so. If not, you’re hamming it up, chewing the scenery as actors say. One of the biggest turn-offs for me has always been a mannered, self-consciously lofty performance style—either too declamatory or too precious. I loathe that breathy yet monotone style that many poets use, utterly unlike their speaking voices, as if every word were in italics. One particular brand of this vice I’ve mentioned in a previous column: the infamous, lilting “poetry voice” so common among contemporary poets, in which every line sounds the same, and many lines are given a rising inflection even when they’re not questions.
9. Read poems by other poets. You’re a fine poet, obviously, and we all love your stuff. Yes, people deserve to know more of your genius. By all means focus on your own immortal work. But one way of pacing a performance as well as giving your audience some of those side-benefits I was discussing above, is to read an example or two of the poems by others that you really love, that have influenced you, or that perhaps ought to be better known. As an audience member I always loved it when Robert Bly would read Neruda or Dickinson, or Allen Ginsberg sang Blake songs, or Seamus Heaney performed some Wordsworth. I learned things thereby, and it was a great way to make the point that the important thing—always—is not the poet but the poem.
10. Read poems that work well aloud. Yes, I know this sounds like belaboring the obvious. Years of attending poetry readings convince me it’s not. It’s simply true that not all excellent poems go over well when just heard once in a public space filled with distractions. Yet poets persist in attempting to perform works that are best experienced on the page, not the stage. Sure, they may be some of your most profound pieces. Don’t read them. Give us your more story-driven, funny, clear, self-contained, or otherwise accessible poems, and read them so well that your entire audience will be moved to go buy your book, in which they can properly admire your denser stuff. For some reason I’m reminded of the old StarKist Tuna ads in which Charlie the Tuna keeps attempting to attract the fishermen by dressing up in fancy clothes and generally demonstrating what good taste he has. Then the inevitable punch-line: “Sorry Charlie. We don’t want tunas with good taste. We want tunas that taste good!” Yes we do.
11. Honor the audience. What do I mean by this? I mean a number of things, all amounting to a basic stance of humility. For starters, your audience has gathered to hear performed some examples of the ancient and beautiful art of poetry, and as reader you owe it to them to deliver the best you can. This might involve reading some great poems by other poets, as just mentioned. It certainly means following the basic rules outlined above. But I think it also involves respecting your listeners by listening in turn to them.
Years ago at The Frost Festival I witnessed director Don Sheehan do something that puzzled me at first. Introducing a reading by student poets, he gave some practical advice about reading aloud, then added that, when each poet finished, the audience would applaud wildly. And the reader should remain on stage and acknowledge the audience’s applause. “Some of you,” he cautioned, “will be nervous or relieved and will want to hustle off the stage. You may not even look at the audience. You mustn’t do this. And if you forget, we will bring you back onstage to receive your applause.” And he meant it. Some students, sure enough, finished their readings and scampered off, only to be brought back and made to acknowledge the applause. “Only then can the circuit be completed,” Don emphasized. As I say, I was skeptical at first (and when giving a reading I have trouble with this rule myself, I admit). But a gracious performer is truly grateful for the audience, and acknowledging them is not just politeness. It does help complete the circuit. There was a lot of good-natured laughter every time Don had to bring some poet back onstage that night, and you could feel a palpable air of camaraderie created thereby.
Similarly, a gracious reader takes time afterward, like Gwendolyn Brooks, to talk to anyone who wants to talk. If you think about it, it’s a great honor when something you write touches someone enough to want to talk about it, tell you their own stories, or otherwise acknowledge you. So you ought to acknowledge them.
©2018 David Graham
Editor's Note: If this poem(s) moves you please consider writing to the author (email address above) to tell him or her. You might say what it is about the poem that moves you. Writing to the author is the beginning of community at Verse Virtual. It is very important. -FF