Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

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of speech impediments and reading poetry out loud

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.

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‘Close-up poetry’

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.


sub-zero: timbre & accent cont’d

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.


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