Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Poetry As Music


All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments.
– Walt Whitman

Even if you are not a poet, there are probably words that have become an integral part of your experience in the form of favorite songs. Who hasn’t memorized a line or two that recalls a special memory or has become a mantra of sorts? And when you started reading poetry, it may have been the most musical lines that first stuck out – the pattern of rhyme, the repetition of a chorus, the alliterative love letters, the guttural wailing of onomatopoeic pain.

Think about the poets you may have read or loved as a child. Dr. Seuss, with his magical rhyme schemes and fanciful, made-up words. (Oobleck, anyone?) Shel Silverstein with his surprise endings and his chant-worthy rhythms. The entire Child’s Garden of Verse with the musical diction of Robert Louis Stevenson’s swing and shadow.  Think about Mother Goose, bedtime prayers, jump rope rhymes and schoolyard hand-clapping games. You have been filled with rhythm and music longer than you know. And music is a weapon in your poetry arsenal that cannot be ignored.

When I write poems, music is essentially a part of my writing pulse. As I stated in a comment on Kathleen Kirk’s post about the double life of the poem, I wrote songs before I started “officially” writing poems, so I learned to write hearing my words out loud and matching them to the tone, mood, and length constraints of a melody. So, when I did start writing poems that were not meant to be song lyrics, the sounds of the poem remained at the forefront, as did the knowledge of line lengths and the cyclical possibilities of repetition, anaphora, and refrains.

Poets who write in form are no strangers to these “constraints” – sometimes the structure of a form poem can create a new kind of music for a writer that is unexpected or (at the very least) a change from the music of free verse.  Shakespeare’s music is completely different than Whitman’s, but both of them beg to be read aloud.

One of the best things I can do for myself as a writer is to read my own work aloud – this helps me (as Kathleen mentioned in her post) to hear even the white space on the page, to get the words out of my head and into the air. With current technology making recording so easy, I have started to record the poems I think are nearly finished to hear the trouble spots, the places that I stumble or that don’t flow cohesively.

A songwriter wouldn’t dream of writing a score and leaving it only on paper, never to be played by instruments or heard by an audience. Why, then, do some poets seem unprepared or unwilling to share their poems as living, breathing works of aural art?  Poetry is meant to be heard. It started as an oral tradition, and songs continued that tradition. Why mess with success? Take the next new poem you write out of your head and into air – listen to it sing.

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Author: Donna Vorreyer

Poet. Teacher. Open mind. Open heart. Refuses to grow old.

11 thoughts on “Poetry As Music

  1. Yes! Hearing yourself read your own poems only needs your in-built computer mike and a free software download. I’m technically-challenged, but have been successfully using Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/). It has way more features than I need, but gets the basic job done and is easy – intuitive – to use. Just ignore the bells and whistles.

    • If you are a Mac owner, it’s even easier as Garageband is built into your machine. I agree – if you ignore all the “fancy” parts of a recording program that are not necessary for voice only, they are easy to use. I even have an app on my iPod called Voxie – with the purchase of a small, inexpensive plug-in mic, I can record directly onto the iPod and wirelessly upload the file into my iTunes account as an mp3.

  2. i have been much more attuned to the effectiveness of “the cyclical possibilities of repetition, anaphora, and refrains” since i began reading my work regularly at open mics.

    my poetry tends toward leaps and strange juxtapositions which are sometimes tricky if you’re hearing them for the first time. musicality of the devices you mention can provide the connective tissue!

    • So true, Carolee – the more you read aloud, the more you hear the musical elements of your work that you may not have noticed on the page.

  3. Wonderful post! You ask an important question: “Why, then, do some poets seem unprepared or unwilling to share their poems as living, breathing works of aural art?”

    My guesses would be: 1) fear (that their work is not exciting enough out loud, or that it is not good enough, of being/sounding silly etc.) 2) lack of practice 3) intimidation regarding technology.

    You are so right about garageband. It has been a glorious gift.

    • Hi, Hannah! Yes, fear can certainly be a factor. I still get nervous, even at open mics where I am quite familiar with the crowd. But, for me, that is part of the exhilaration – here are some new-birthed words. How will they react? :)

  4. For myself, building musical aspects into the poetry that I write is an essential part of my technique, and I have often deliberately played up the sonic patterns and repetitions that I delight in, especially in order to spark that sense of pleasure. And I enjoy analysing poems’ stylistic features, if only to be able to see where the sounds give me pleasure.

    • I agree! I often will read a poem aloud over and over just for the sounds. When I am writing, I sometimes have to be careful that my focus on sound doesn’t take over in such a way that it is detrimental to the overall vision.

  5. So glad to hear about the musical joy of reading aloud for some of you, and to learn of these practical tips about recording. Thanks, all! And, Hannah, I do think the “fear factor” is real for a lot of poets. Maybe Voice Alpha will give rise to a new television reality show: Poetry Fear Factor.

    Great post, Donna!

    • Poetry Fear Factor: what would be scariest? Would it be having to read poems you wrote in your high school journal? Reading aloud the worst rejection letter you ever received? Giving the audience red pens and asking them to edit your brand-new poem in front of you on an overhead projector? :)

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