That’s what the UK’s Forward Arts Foundation did at their big poetry prize day in London last week, provoking much indignation among UK poets.
“On the way in to the event, a Forward Trustee told me that the origin of the actorly coup came from the premise that poets can’t read their work,” wrote a protesting blogger. She went on to characterize the evening as “a solemn, ponderous series of readings by a group of actors who made heavy weather of the poems.”
“If the motivation was doubt as to whether poets can read their own work well, that’s outdated,’ asserted another protesting blogger, adding that ‘one only has to go to a TS Eliot prize-giving or a major magazine launch to understand that most good poets are somewhere between competent and excellent at reading.” Am not sure I completely understood the rationale she then used to explain her position, but she went on to say that “most of the actors just didn’t inhabit the poems effectively. I think it was harder, hearing most of the poems for the first time and not knowing several of the poets’ work, to ‘get’ each poem than it usually is at readings. I don’t mean the ostensible subject, if any, but the motive force and the magical something that might make the listener/reader connect with the work.”
The Foundation’s response was, um, snarky: “The controversial decision to use actors to read the shortlisted poetry has provoked vigorous debate: some poets, publishers and bloggers insist that poetry should be read aloud only by its authors and no one else, while others reckon that a poem lives in the voices, ears and minds of the many, not the few,” it said on its website.
As my long-suffering readers know, I’m a big fan of the you learn way more about pretty much everything by reading other people’s poems to an audience or by having your poems read to you, than you do by reading your own poems to others school of thought. As such, I am very intrigued by this idea. Note that the actors provided their services free for the event.
Has anyone ever tried this? Asked an actor friend or friends to take the poet’s place at a reading? If not, do you think it might be a good idea to try, or a stinker? Why?
Meanwhile, here are some of the readings from the controversial Forward prize-giving event last week. There were three big winners – Best Collection, Best First Collection and Best Single Poem.
Best Collection – Michael Symmons Roberts (see him read on a different occasion here – jump to about 1:17 for the reading). At the prize-giving, actress Natascha McElhone read one of his poems, here. Roberts struck me as a competent reader, but I thought McElhone did a really fabulous job with her reading.
Best First Collection – Emily Berry. See her read here. Actress Helen McCrory read one of Berry’s poems at the prize-giving, here. An unfortunate stumble on the last line of the poem, but an otherwise engaging performance, I thought.
Very interested to hear others’ thoughts on all this. To close things out, here’s a great post from the Voice Alpha archives by Rachel Dacus (with discussion in the comments), on the advantages of having someone than the author read poems to an audience.
Found the entry below on the For Dummies website. I like When you read poetry aloud, read it as though you were delivering the poem to an attentive audience. Yes, muttering to oneself as one writes or reads really doesn’t count. To be useful, reading aloud has to be full attention and full respect, aimed at an audience:
When you read poetry aloud, read it as though you were delivering the poem to an attentive audience. Why? Here are the three most important reasons you should read poetry aloud:
– Poets design their poems to be read aloud. The earliest poetry was oral. People chanted it, sang it, recited it — and they still do. From its earliest forms to the poems being written today, poetry has kept its close alliance with speaking and singing.
The music of poetry — that is, its sounds and rhythms — isn’t just for the eye and the mind, it’s meant to be given voice. In fact, as they write, most poets imagine someone reading their poems aloud. Poetry is supposed to be a living thing, and poets write accordingly, with an audience in mind.
– You’ll experience the whole poem if you read it aloud. Poems read aloud are different animals from poems read silently. A big part of poetry is sound and rhythm — and the best way to get the full impact of these important elements is to put them into action by pronouncing them with your own throat, lungs, teeth, lips, and tongue.
Sound and rhythm don’t exist just for their own sakes, either; they exist to give you pleasure (because humans naturally like music and rhythm in poetry) and lead you to the poem’s meanings. Commas, spaces between words, line endings, and other pauses may hint at melancholy, hesitancy, or passion. Punctuation has its traditional functions (exclamations! questions? wistfulness . . .), and it often also is used in unexpected ways — or not used at all. You may miss all these signals if you don’t read aloud.
– You’ll understand and remember more if you read aloud. Memory and understanding are everything. If you remember something and understand it, it takes up long-term residence inside your brain. And then you can use that knowledge as a building block to discover more and more about the world of poetry.
– From Poetry For Dummies by John Timpane
(cross-posted at Very Like A Whale)
…the most important language of our so-called post-literate society. The image. Ours is a world where the ability to communicate doesn’t require anything more than rudimentary reading and writing. And, in fact, sounds and pictures can do the job just as well.And given time constraints today, perhaps better. This is what virtual reality has wrought.The image is the new word. Don’t send a message expressing your emotion, send an image representing the idea.
It would be useful [..] to trace the history of Western civilization with an eye towards evaluating the war between image and word. Start with the Mona Lisa on one side and Don Quixote on the other and count up the wins and losses in each column [...] most realists among the wordsmiths already know that short of some massive cataclysm that lays to waste the electronic grid that makes the delivery of images so easy, we are pretty much done for.
From The War on Wordsmiths by Ali Eteraz – read full article here.
I don’t necessarily disagree with his premise, but do think there is a key distinction to be made between written wordsmithing and spoken wordsmithing. Which doesn’t much help the written word crowd, but does make the overall case for wordsmiths somewhat less dire.
Petersen: Kleichen and a Man by George Szirtes
50 secs, poem text
Most days, I listen to someone reading poetry, even if it’s just clicking on the Poetry Foundation Poem of the Day in my news reader. I also stop listening very quickly if it doesn’t go right, and by that, I mean, does the reader establish an end-of-line note and keep returning to it throughout the reading? If not, I’ll keep listening. George Szirtes (about whom I know pretty much nothing else) avoids this phenomenon, and I like that.
Test your own reading. Pretend the reading is a musical performance for a solo instrument and listen to the note that sounds at the end of most of the lines. If you hear the same end-of-line note repeated throughout the reading, go back and deliberately vary it each time. It’s a trap easily fallen into (speaking from experience here) but, once identified and acknowledged, also easily escaped from.