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.