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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accents cont’d – Tennessee

More lovely southern accent: today’s Poem of the Day at the Poetry Foundation is Charles Wright’s ‘Stone Canyon Nocturne’. Enjoying his voice – so slow and pouring.

about Charles Wright
poem text
1 min 2 secs

all ‘accents’ posts


accents cont’d – North Carolina

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.
(57 secs)

poem text


25 voices for one speech

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.


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