Another UK poet – Patience Agbabi, and two performances of her own poetry below. In the first one, she recites rather than reads, in the second, she reads.
This is great. Please skip directly to minute 34 for Paley reading her poems. Before that, she reads a couple of short stories, and before that, there’s a lot of intro stuff (Pinsky) and another reader. After that, you get about 30 minutes of Grace Paley reading Grace Paley poems (with some sweet/funny pauses while she gets absorbed in looking for the exact poem she wants among her sheaves of paper). This reading took place in April 2007, when she was 84. She died in August 2007.
I’m a big fan of Grace Paley’s poetry, as various Very Like A Whale posts have shown. Sadly, though, liking a poet’s poems is never any guarantee that one will like that poet’s reading of his or her poems. In this case, however, we are definitely lucky.
So what do we have in this You Tube video? A short, elderly lady with big glasses, a red hat, a gravelly old-lady voice and a pronounced New York accent. She doesn’t look up at the audience much while she reads. She uses no hand gestures or body movements. And she looks tiny and unprepossessing behind the big lectern at which she stands.
She clearly has a wicked sense of humor and is just plain wise, but it’s not just that that makes her completely engaging. The first big thing she has in her favor from my perspective is that she reads the poems as if she’s talking to you – conversationally. No rising inflections or declamation, no plaintive lingering on the last word/syllable of a line, no self-conscious ahem, I am reading a poem voice. She is obviously a natural story-teller, which helps – lots of convincing variation in tone, pitch, pace. Clear delivery. Appropriation of the material. She is in the poem as she reads. To repeat what I said of a couple of different poets in a recent post: what you feel when Grace Paley reads is not: Here I am, reading my poem. What you feel is just: Here is my poem.
Back in 2011, I wrote in this post:
Noun: The character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity.
Regional or other accent, the timbre/quality/sound of one’s voice and speech impediments such as lisps are three things pretty much out of control of most who read aloud for an audience. They should really be discounted when judging the quality of a reading.
Pursuing the wonderful poetry of Lucille Clifton over at Very Like A Whale, I found some of her readings online. In this Poetry Foundation offering, she reads her poem Mulberry Bushes for an animated video of the poem, and in this You Tube clip, she reads her poems Aunt Jemima and After Blues for an audience at the Dodge poetry festival. Listeners will note that the timbre of her voice is rather high and somewhat thin, and that she has a pronounced lisp.
Robert Pinsky is another poet with a pronounced lisp, as evidenced by this Poetry Foundation reading of his Poem About People, or this You Tube clip of him reading some of his other poems. He and Clifton also seem to share a penchant for super-careful word enunciation (a related phenomenon, possibly?). The timbre of Pinsky’s voice, with its depth and warm granularity, is more actively attractive than Clifton’s. But it’s not that which makes him a stronger reader than Clifton, in my view. (And by the way, although I have expressed reservations about Pinsky’s enunciation preferences in the past, I do consider him a good reader overall.)
What does make the difference? Hard to say, exactly, but if I had to sum it up, I would say that listening to Clifton, I hear: Here I am, reading my poem for you, whereas with Pinsky, I hear more directly: Here is my poem for you. Hard to pin down exactly why, though. I’d be very interested to hear what others think.
But yes, the speech impediments really are not relevant here.
A nice idea from the Guardian: “A series of readings, in which poets choose a favourite poem from their own work, and recite it to camera.”
There are two readings up so far. I enjoyed the understated comfortable – in both voice and visage – reading in this one by Yorkshire (love that accent..) poet Simon Armitage.
Not so much this one by Jo Shapcott – her voice and face are both trying too hard for my taste.
Look forward to seeing who goes up next – the site has an RSS feed so you can add it to your reader and get them as they are posted.
ok, shoot me, but on the timbre and accent scale, this reading registers pretty much -0 on a scale of 1 to 10. Courtesy of Poem of the Day (and it’s a long one):
Fever 103° by and read by Sylvia Plath
3 min 16 secs
She is totally totally in love with the words, though – you can hear her absolutely relish and adore each one.
So, yes — I don’t know.
I’m not particularly bowled over by the reading performance in the reading below by Eleanor Ross Taylor, but I am bowled over by her terrific North Carolina accent. Personal prejudice, I admit — I’m a sucker for a southern US accent. There is an interesting Wikipedia entry on her ‘southernness’ which alas, doesn’t mention her voice. The Wikipedia also entry mentions her ‘use of both metrical and nonmetrical lines’, and after reading that, I wonder whether/how she writes in/scans the extra syllable the North Carolinian accent adds to words like appear, chair, here in her metrical lines.
Recalling a Voice Alpha post from earlier this summer entitled accents & dialects in reading poetry aloud, I found the performance below by impressionist Jim Meskimen thought-provoking on several levels (hat tip: Donna Vorreyer). The effect of accent and dialect. The levels of performance (not just as himself performing Piece X, but also as Persons A through Y performing the piece, for example). The role of the voice as distinct from the role of the visual cues in the video. And so on.
I watched another clip by Meskimen where he starts out by saying of what he does that ‘it’s all about the voice, about the fun things the human voice can do and project.’ And in fact, you start out by thinking you are relying on both audio and visuals cues to ‘get’ the performance, but try minimizing the video screen and you will find the voice-only performance does it all. It seems that the facial expressions and hand gestures are simply physical & emotional aides supporting the voice to get where it needs to be in terms of quality, timbre, etc.
Bearing this idea out, Meskimen’s promotional website has almost no text or visuals – just a set of voice recordings.
See what you think. (I’ve included the speech as Meskimen delivers it below the embedded video. I’d have preferred to link to it elsewhere, but his version has tweaks that don’t appear in versions I have found online.)
3 min 46 secs
Richard III, Act 1, Scene 4
O, I have pass’d a miserable night,
So full of fearful dreams, of ugly sights,
That, as I am a Christian faithful man,
I would not spend another such a night,
Though ’twere to buy a world of happy days,
Methought that I had broken from the Tower,
And was embark’d to cross to Burgundy;
And, in my company, my brother Gloucester;
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches: thence we looked toward England,
And conjured up a thousand fearful times,
During the wars of York and Lancaster
That had befall’n us. As we paced along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,
Struck me, who thought to stay him, overboard,
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of water in mine ears!
What sights of ugly death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men’s skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As if in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.
Had I such leisure in the time of death
To gaze upon the secrets of the deep?
Methought I had; and often did I try
To yield the ghost: but still the envious flood
Kept in my soul, and would not let it forth
To find the empty, vast and wandering air;
But smother’d it within my panting bulk,
Which nearly burst to belch it in the sea.
I awoke me not with such sore agony.
O, no, my dream was lengthen’d after life;
O, then began the tempest to my soul,
Who pass’d, methought, the melancholy flood,
With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
Into the kingdom of perpetual night.
The first that there did greet my stranger soul,
Was my great father-in-law, renowned Warwick;
Who cried aloud, ‘What scourge for perjury
Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?’
And then he vanish’d: next came wandering by
A shadow like an angel, with bright hair
Dabbled in blood; who cried
‘Clarence is come; false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,
That stabb’d me in the field at Tewksbury;
Seize on him, Furies, take him into torment!’
With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
Environ’d me about, and howled in mine ears
Such hideous cries, that with the very noise
I trembling waked, and for a season after
Could not believe but that I was in hell,
Such terrible impression made the dream.
Check out this interesting exchange. Excerpt:
…one difficulty that will exist when we are reading poetry from poets around the world is the ‘musicality’ of the poetry.
Poetry is essentially to be read aloud but I am a Northern Englishman, Yorkshire to be exact, and my vowel sounds are distinctively different from any American or Australian voice. For me to read aloud the poetry of some one from Alabama, say, is like playing the violin concerto on a trombone, it doesn’t sound the way the composer wrote it or conceived it.
As a general rule, I wouldn’t make too much of this issue. After all, here at Voice Alpha and in Whale Sound group readings, we regularly have a whole bunch of different accents reading the same piece and to me, accent is just one of a range of interesting & individual elements the individual reader brings to any reading.
However, I recently had occasion to think about a related point. Whale Sound takes third-party submissions and recently a very cool poet sent in this poem as a third-party submission. It’s a tremendous piece by Bahamas poet Desiree Cox, and it starts like this:
Well. When I see Sister Sheila step out
Face paint up like Jezebel
Royal blue satellite dish of a Sunday hat
Kick off to one side
Breasts mountain ranging
Strapless, under skirt suit the color of Caribbean Sea
Striding, her hard farm funnel foot
In navy-blue battleship shoes
I thought my hour had come
Lord knows I likes to die.
I really hate to turn down third-party submissions, because (frankly) they don’t come along nearly as frequently as I would like, but I definitely quailed here. This wonderful poem is written in a dialect that (to my mind) is constituted by two aspects – one the grammatical conventions used and the second, actual pronunciation of the words. Reading the grammar as presented would be one thing. But I’m a one-trick pony when it comes to pronunciation and have never considered trying to adopt other accents in my Whale Sound readings. I think I’d be very bad at it and would just make everyone cringe in the process.
What do you think? Assuming you yourself are not from the Bahamas or its dialectically-related region, would you read Dr. Cox’s poem out loud for an audience? And if so, how would you treat it?
(And would you read this by Robert Burns to an audience?
Nae doubt but they were fain o’ ither,
An’ unco pack an’ thick thegither;
Wi’ social nose whyles snuff’d an’ snowket;
Whyles mice and modewurks they howket;
Whyles scour’d awa in lang excursion,
An’ worry’d ither in diversion;
Till tir’d at last wi’ mony a farce,
They set them down upon their arse,
An’ there began a lang digression
About the lords o’ the creation.)