Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


“Stop using ‘Poet Voice'”

Maybe the poet is the great Louise Glück or the former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Maybe the poet is a close friend. Whoever it is, that person has just slipped into Poet Voice, ruining everybody’s evening and their own poetry because now the audience has to spend a lot of intellectual and emotional energy trying to understand the words of the poem through a thick cloud of oratorical perfume.

Full article by Rich Smith here.

Lol. Don’t disagree with what he is saying, but my pet peeve remains the end of line note. Which sometimes, but not always, comes along with other characteristics described in the article.

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Really? Poetry audio for sale – $1.53 per poem download

Being generally against attempts to insert commerce and/or a profit motive into poetry, I’m not at all a fan of this idea. You can listen online for free, but downloading will cost you 89p (or $1.53) per poem, while an ‘album’ seems to be going for £9.99 (or $17.14). More expensive than many current music hits on iTunes. Is anyone buying, I wonder…?

Sir Andrew Motion launches iTunes-style site for poetry

Former [UK] poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion has launched an iTunes-style website for poetry featuring a host of famous names reading their favourite verse.

More than 1,600 different recordings of work by hundreds of writers can be listened to for free or downloaded to keep for a fee from the Poetry Archive.

Recordings include Spike Milligan reading The Land Of The Bumbly Boo and war poet Siegfried Sassoon’s The Dug Out as well as contemporary figures including Carol Ann Duffy.

There is also a section including work by authors who died before the invention of recording equipment featuring actors such as Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren and Kenneth Branagh reading their favourite poems.

Among the recordings are Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe reading a Shakespeare sonnet and The Hour star Romola Garai reading Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach

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‘And each and every vapor spent’

Like the poem, but not at all sure what the reader’s intent is with this almost hesitant and super-enunciated reading style, or if there is a particular background to it, but don’t find it particularly enticing or convincing.

Variations on Some of Dante’s Last Lines by Norma Cole (poem text) (1 min 30 secs)

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disappointing reading – Yvor Winters

This is disappointing for me, as I am a big fan of some of Yvor Winters’ poetry. Just never heard him read before. In this one, he settles early on a cadence and ‘score’ for a stanza and repeats it over and over pretty much identically over nine stanzas of rhyming tetrameter. I suppose that’s the trouble with and danger in reading formal poetry – it’s very hard to avoid getting trapped by the iambs and rhymes and ending up with monotonous sing-song readings.

Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight by Yvor Winters, read by Yvor Winters
poem text
1 min 59 secs


Why don’t they teach us to read & What makes a poetry reading fail?

Here’s some great stuff from Jessica Piazza, who writes of:

a major problem I have with graduate poetry-writing programs in general: the lack of focus on public reading skills, as though those weren’t integral to our work as professional poets. As a PhD student, I’m not required (nor even encouraged) to take public speaking or drama courses. Nowhere in the curricula is it acknowledged that, because we poets have a devastatingly small audience matched by terrible underrepresentation in book stores, most of us will sell the majority of our books (if we’re lucky enough to publish some) at poetry readings. Shouldn’t that fact be considered when deciding what professional poets should learn in school?

What makes for a failed poetry reading? Among those Jessica had experienced, readings where the poets:

1 – clearly didn’t care. I’ve heard so many of my colleagues say “I’m such a bad reader,” like it wasn’t a big deal; like it couldn’t be changed with some work and practice. I’m a little offended by this, honestly. People come to the venue, they take their seats and (hopefully) sit quietly and respectfully so that you might share your art with them. Don’t we owe people enough respect to try to do a good job, entertain them, or at least convey our ideas well?

2 – mumbled, didn’t enunciate or articulate words, spoke way to quickly or didn’t project at all. This is obvious. Poetry can be difficult enough to understand even when the listeners get the words. Help the kids out.

3 – over-explained the poems. Personally, I sometimes make jokes about situations or people in my poems before I say them. It’s my defense mechanism. But when a poet tells more than is absolutely necessary about a poem, it robs the audience of what Josh called “the pleasure of revelation.”

4 – had no stage presence at all. This can mean a few different things. Some poets shrink into themselves. Some ramble. Some seem scared out of their minds.

5—speak in a poetry voice. You know the one. The lilting up at the end of every line. The pauses in strange places. The absolute inability to realize that poetry (though not prose) is written in sentences, usually, or at least phrases, and might benefit from being vocalized as such.

6 – don’t understand their audience. When Jim Shepherd, an amazing fiction writer I just read for the first time this year, came to USC, we had a really funny conversation about choosing the wrong piece for the crowd. “Their eyes glaze over,” he said, blanching at the memory. Once fiction writers start a story, though, it’s hard for them to stop or turn back. As poets, we have the opportunity to cater our reading to the crowd, watch reactions, choose poems more on the fly depending on how it’s going. All it takes is a little observation.

Jessica concludes:

there are endless ways to be winning, but the main one just seems to be caring about the audience, and realizing that what we do is an art of communication, whether on the page or in front of a microphone. And besides, I’ve always wanted to buy more books after good poetry readings than bad ones. But certainly none of this matters if the work isn’t good in the first place. So that’s obviously the priority.


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