Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

The Double Life of the Poem


For me, the poem has an existence on the page and an existence in the voice, indeed a “double life,” as Nic has called it. And more, as the double life exists in time, and in the poem’s revision, and in-the-moment of its recitation in mind or aloud, by my voice, someone else’s voice, or the neutral voice in my head, and on and on. So let me back up and try to be clear about the double life before its “film version,” multiplicity.

There is the poem as written, on the page, with line breaks and stanza breaks, chosen punctuation, chosen combinations of vowels and consonants. By “chosen,” I mean that, even if stumbled upon or poured out in the grace of inspiration, the poem on the page has survived revision and reflection. I have given it careful attention. (I, as “I,” must speak as the writer and reader here, hoping for some shared experience but knowing only my own this deeply.)

Then there is the poem as voice—heard (by me and listeners), held in the mouth, formed, uttered by the lips and tongue, floated on the breath, created anew in sound waves, given to others in this particular moment.

I say “then,” but I have used the voice all along, reading aloud as part of the revision process. Reading aloud privately, reading aloud in a workshop situation—to attentive, helpful listeners—and sometimes even reading aloud in a more public situation, thanking the audience for hearing a very new poem, and letting them know it is in revision and that how it reaches them (or not) is very important to me.

What I hope for, in reading the poem aloud, is that the page poem and the voice poem match. They are a good marriage, a tandem bicycle ride, a pair of synchronized swimmers.

I hope that the line, the tumble of sounds together, the moments of air/breath/stillness (white space) are heard as well as seen. I hope that I have created a poem on the page that any attentive reader could read aloud, guided by the written choices.

And so I feel a responsibility, when writing, to guide that voice with my choices. And I feel a responsibility when reading aloud to follow the guide that is the written poem.

I mean, I feel a responsibility to read the poem well. To honor it, as I would honor anyone else’s poem, as I would honor a passage of Shakespeare, by reading what is there. To give it voice.

So if there’s a line break, I am aware of it. Perhaps the line is enjambed, and the sense and flow go on to the next line. There won’t be an actual pause, then, at the end of the line, unless it is minuscule, but there will be something, some gentle, subtle pulse, perhaps, reinforced by consonant or vowel, whatever is really there.

If there is a cluster of consonants, difficult to say, in a line of poetry, that difficulty is my guide. I have chosen this difficulty in the writing (no doubt the thought here is difficult, or the emotion), so the voice should acknowledge this difficulty, so the listeners can hear it. I shouldn’t literally have trouble saying the words—I will have practiced the poem, so I can say it without faltering—but I should honor the emotional stumbling or faltering, or the complexity or paradox in the line. Maybe the voice will crack, therefore. I don’t know, and I will not know until I say it out loud in the moment of speaking it to the listener/s, but if I am aware of what is there in the poem as written, I can trust it will be there in the voice. And I have a responsibility to let it be there.

That is, I shouldn’t shy away from speaking with attention to and appreciation of what is there (the poem) and who is there (the listener/s). I am shy, and so are many poets, but I gain courage from this focus, this attention, and this appreciation that, for me, becomes love.

I love poetry, I love this poem, I love reading aloud, I love this audience! I let the love take over and buoy me up in the synchronized swimming.

Plus, I am swimming naked. That is, I am revealing what is there on the page. I am not pretending not to have made these choices when I wrote the poem.

Sometimes the tossed-off reading, or the mumbled reading is a form of false modesty. The poet is pretending not to care (about the event, the audience, his/her own featured-poet status?—I’m not sure, and it varies) or not to have taken care with the poem on the page. False modesty, though, is like wearing a see-through nightie. Why bother?

Real fear and real shyness, I understand and respect. I was a very shy child, and I am still nervous before any poetry reading. All I can offer is love, trust, and the attention I’ve spoken of above; it really can help you get through. It helps me through, and, hey, I’m naked as a baby.

A couple more things:

1) the over-prepared, over-performed, over-interpreted reading
2) the neutral voice in my head

I was on speech team in high school, doing verse reading, among other things. And I’ve spoken with professors of the Oral Interpretation of Literature. They are retired, so is this a thing of the past? Anyway, the too-studied reading can lack spontaneity and that love and respect found in the moment of reading. So, be careful of that. You don’t have to interpret your poem too much when reading it aloud. Just say what’s there, and that no doubt contains ambivalence and some natural ambiguity. After all, you wrote a poem, not an essay.

The neutral voice in my head is another kind of guide. I “hear” this voice when I am reading silently—whether it’s my own poem or someone else’s. It’s not a voice with personality or a distinct sound. It’s not a voice I can recreate out loud. I wonder if some of those dull monotonous readings we hear are poets trying indeed to recreate the silent neutral voice they hear in their own heads. (If that is a shared phenomenon.)

Does anybody else “hear” a silent, neutral voice? Or am I just crazy? As well as a naked baby.

–Kathleen Kirk

Author: Kathleen Kirk

Writer, blogger.

17 thoughts on “The Double Life of the Poem

  1. I love this. Thanks, Kathleen. You argue for the marriage of the poem-as-text and poem-as-voice, and approach the topic as a writer who actively incorporates and respects voice every step of the way in composition. This is the way it should be done, in my view.

    There are many like you in this respect, but also very many unlike you. How are we helping those who don’t do it like you?

    Really, the more I consider this, the more I am convinced that we as a community are suffering from, and are being weakened by, self-reading.

    We need to read, not our own, but each others’ poems. This is the way to strengthen each other.

  2. Reading each other’s poems aloud is something we try in a little workshop I teach in the rare book room of the bookstore I work in. The poet will read her/his poem, and then somebody else will. It helps us hear it, and it helps the poet hear it. New things happen! This is a great aid in 1) revision 2) understanding.

    Also, at Poetry Radio, WGLT, poets can read their own work and/or work by another poet. I love hearing these poems. One question/worry I have here is permission. I hesitate to read another poet’s work on the radio unless I have asked, and received permission. At your site, permission is part of the process.

    But here’s a sweet thing: a man I know gave his wife as a surprise wedding gift a CD of their poems. I read hers and a mutual male poet friend read his! She was delighted. And then they gave these out as gifts to the guests at a reception later. The love goes on and on!

    • It does! The permission thing is a good point, but it seems to me that if we all got into the habit of reading each others’ poems at readings as a matter of course, the permission issue would become institutionalized, as a matter of course. “Now I have read the ten poems I wanted to read to you, I’d like to end this reading with two poems of my friend, Poet X.” Or something. I’m sure Poet X would be delighted, and very happy to return the favor at hir (?) own reading!

      Your energy and belief are infectious, Kathleen — thanks for posting here!!

    • Regarding the workshop you mentioned, Kathleen….this kind of thing is always a good exercise and can be a real eye opener if one is open to the experience. At the same time, I feel like one has to be aware of the dangers of editing for other readers. To put this more simply and clearly into musical terms, just because I make a hack job out of a Howlin’ Wolf song, it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t a great song….particularly the hands of Howlin’ Wolf himself. To further clarify, I know a lot of writers who will edit and edit and edit based on multiple suggestions by completely different people, as if anyone could please all of the people all of the time. When it happens to this great of an extent, the “voice” of the work disappears completely and the work is “nuetralized.” I’m probably wandering off point here a bit….it was just a thought.

      This was a very interesting read, by the way. Great job!

  3. Great post! In regards to your first point, I often let the sound guide my word-choices to such an extent that the way the poem appears on the page becomes very much a secondary consideration. I realize that’s not the only way to do it; I mention this just to say yes, you’re right right, poem-as-voice is not a “then.”

    I like your point about nakedness, which reminds me of a poem by Jimenez. When I read, I do try to drop all masks and pretenses and allow the words to completely inhabit and speak through me — easier said than done, but giving complete attention to the poem in front of an audience like that can indeed feel like swimming naked, as you say. And I really like your suggestion of where monotonous readers might be coming from. A lot to chew on here. Thanks!

  4. I enjoyed reading Kathleen’s original piece and the comments that followed. Having heard Kathleen read her poetry on several occasions, I can attest to her success at allowing the poems to come to life through her reading them aloud. Her knowledge of the material, her belief in what she has put on paper, and her sincere desire to communicate with the audience come through. It is even more enjoyable when you can be in the room and see her read.

    • We’re turning her into a virus – exactly the kind of read-poetry-aloud virus we all need! Kathleen will be appearing here on Voice Alpha as an occasional author-contributor just as soon as we can work through the evil WordPress initiation rites for such status. Thanks, Kathleen!

  5. Preach.

    You are so right, Kathleen. So many poets (myself included!) have felt apologetic about their work. It seems hard for us to enthusiastically jump up before an audience, and say, “Woohoo! I’m a poet, here are my poems, and this is AWESOME!!” We may be feeling that way inside, but self-doubt interferes (evil little self-doubt devil on our left shoulder pokes us in the head with his trident, and hisses, “Hey, you! Don’t get cocky! What’s so great about you, anyway? So-and-so reads so much more excitingly than you!”).

    I’m like you in that it is most helpful if I approach reading like I do the classes I teach–I have talking points, and a basic plan, but no script, and allow for changes as they arise based on the moment.

    Thanks for this.

  6. Kathleen, I’ve enjoyed your post very much partly because I too have a neutral voice that lives in my head alone. For years I thought it was something related to what reading teachers call “sub-vocalization,” but it is much more than reactional. It’s incitive. As I age, I’ve come to rely on it. I think it may be a “live feed” from my intuition. I hope it doesn’t make my readings monotonous, but without it, I’d likely not read at all.

  7. Margaret is my mom! She always says nice things about me, and she read poetry aloud to me as a child.

    Reading each other’s work at readings sounds great. I was worried about permission on the radio, because those podcasts get picked up by other services and blasted around the world on the Internet, etc., but it occurs to me that radio stations probably have all that covered somehow, legally, because they play all that music. But I still would like to check with a living poet before I read his or her poem on the air or for a podcast. I guess that will be my own responsibility.

    • Yes, under current copyright law, you would definitely need permission.

    • Getting permission – even when, as in some cases, you don’t technically need it – makes for good feeling all round, I have found at Whale Sound. Getting permission has the added bonus of letting the other poet know you will be reading their work and helps spread the ‘let’s read each other’s work’ concept just a little each time.

  8. Storialist, yes, I think it is OK to be enthusiastic about the chance to read our work! And to avoid false modesty and annoying self doubts, or anything that gets in the way of our direct and loving communication with the listeners. The love of poetry and of reading it aloud (ours or somebody else’s) and the love of those patient and generous enough to listen is the love I am talking about!

    Now I am me, and when logged in I am kvkirk. Hmm, anyway, I’m here!

  9. Wonderful, Kathleen. The double life of the poem has always been important to me as I have always wanted to hear what my words sound like in the air. When I started writing in high school, I wrote songs, a natural way to “speak” poetic language. (Besides, my parents would have thought I was strange to be reading poems aloud to myself in my room…). I believe that my comfort with this public sharing of language through its marriage with music made the sounds of my poems a crucial factor when I started to focus on the words as their own art.

  10. What a great way to say it: “hear what my words sound like in the air”!

    The poetry and music connection sounds like it works very well for you and would be helpful for other poets to keep in mind. We do sing lyrics all the time out there in the air.

  11. I am Kathleen’s sister and I, too, love hearing her read her own work or the work of others, particularly Emily Dickinson. Kathleen’s description of the active relationship between the text and the reader of the text rings true for me. As to the the studied reading, I find that the interaction with the text needs to be immediate and responsive. On a given day and in a given moment my response to the text will be different, informed by the events of the day, the hour. So, the same text, line ending, image, will mean different things to me in the uttering. But I also think that in-the-moment interaction can be informed by careful study. So, in that sense it’s both familiar and a surprise. But I also think that engaging with the text in this active and receptive way is something that can benefit from coaching from a professional and from some form of rehearsal process; just as one might seek out a critical reader of one’s poems. Both the writing of the text and the reading of the text are strange mixtures of inspiration, instinct, and craft. A good poem may have a sense of spontaneous, unstudied truth. And yet, the poet may have agonized at several drafts to reach this end. Perhaps this perspective comes from the fact that I teach actors to speak Shakespeare’s poetry. And, I’ve seen how careful coaching can yield spontaneous and nuanced results. Thanks for inviting me into the conversation, Kathleen!

  12. My sister was here! Chris Kirk is a marvelous teacher, director, and actor. And talk about voice! She’s got one!

    David T.: Yes, I hope we handle that openly and delicately in the workshop, reading our own and each other’s work aloud. We are not editing, just listening and receiving. We get the benefit of hearing the poem twice, once in the poet’s voice, and once in another voice, so the poet gets to hear it, too. Then workshop feedback follows.

    Your concern is a very important one, I think, as I’ve attended classes and workshops where people make suggestions on editing based on what they would do, not on what the poem/poet at hand has done and is offering. (Seems to me you can’t really make suggestions for change unless you’ve shown you can see and say what’s there, and what’s already working well, anyway.)

    And I’ve met people who were damaged and hurt by forceful and primarily negative criticism. So this isn’t like that.

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