Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

‘the poem, ultimately, belongs to the reader’ – by Rachel Dacus


(Guest post by Rachel Dacus)

My poetry group was in a restless mood. They wanted to change up the routine. Someone suggested that instead of reading our own poems, we pass our poems around the circle and have someone else read them, then pass them back and the poet read his or her poem. At first, it seemed like a hokey idea, just a time waster, but the results surprised everyone.

For some, our own poems seemed strange and full of things we hadn’t consciously put in. For me, it affirmed the fact that the poem, ultimately, belongs to the reader, not to its author. It also made me realize that some elements of a poem appear unconsciously, yet are fully evident to someone else.

For others in our group, the reading clarified the fact that we all can work harder at presenting our poems aloud. Some of the readers were stunningly good at interpreting someone else’s poem where they might be not so spectacular when reading their own. Perhaps modesty, or stage fright, accounts for it. But we all found that no one can find all the possible interpretations for a poem. And the better the poem, the more full of double meanings and layers of significance.

In many cases, the poet’s own reading was disappointing after hearing someone else’s interpretation. I certainly felt that way about my poem – that a reader who had never even seen my poem before found subtleties of meaning I hadn’t been aware of. Even in cases where a poet wasn’t particularly skilled reader, interpreting someone else’s poem became an interesting exercise that opened up ideas about the meaning in the poem that surprised its author.

The experience of hearing poems interpreted by others made me thoughtful about the mysteries of poetry. I marveled that someone could find nuances in my poem that I know I didn’t deliberately layer in. I enjoyed hearing two very different interpretations of the same poem, appreciating as I did that poetry dwells in complexity and ambiguity. And finally, I decided that I would listen to a lot of poetry read aloud.

After that, I experimented with a poet friend, getting together to read poems to each other, then exchange and read each other’s poems aloud. We found it very helpful in critiquing the poems to hear the other person’s reading, revealing their choices for emphasis and line and stanza breaks.

It wasn’t until I found Whale Sound that I could continue to listen to contemporary poems read by someone other than the author. Other zines should try this. It’s a fantastic way to open up a poem and allow it to travel, and to let the author hear it breathe.

(Rachel blogs at Rocket Kids.)

Author: Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

12 thoughts on “‘the poem, ultimately, belongs to the reader’ – by Rachel Dacus

  1. Exciting to hear about your discoveries! We do this in our workshop, too. I find it thrilling that it was the other readers who noticed the nuances (opposite to my own comment about the poet being aware of some nuances but being unable to project or stress them in reading aloud…. Sometimes the poet is NOT aware!!).

    I love that we can trust the poem itself, too, as well as the reader. The reader will find whatever is there, whether we poets know it is there or not.

    Thank you!

  2. Great post, Rachel – you said everything I always want to say about the myriad benefits of reading other people’s poetry aloud for an audience, only much better than I ever could!

    Thanks for the kind words about Whale Sound. I should point out that the very cool online poetry zine linebreak posts a poem a week read aloud by someone other than the author.

  3. Surprising, really, that this isn’t already the norm at poetry workshops. It seems very much in keeping with William Stafford’s original conception of the purpose and function of the workshop.

    Terrific post. It cuts so close to the core of our mission here, I’m tempted to advocate pasting it wholesale into the About page.

    • Dave – What’s that about William Stafford’s conception? Is there a link?

    • Most workshops have the someone else read the poem after the poet reads it – pretty standard at most workshop-type classes I have experienced. It makes you hear things in your work that you didn’t know were there. (I had a workshop this summer where the reader stressed lines in a completely different way than I did, and her reading led to workshop to discover an environmental theme in the poem that I did not recognize.

  4. So much of writing poetry involves the subconscious. That’s why we authors don’t know (up here, at the top level) all layers of what we mean.

    I wonder how practice fits in. Do readings get stale? (It’s possible, I think). Reading in front of people is very different than reading out loud, alone.

    Thanks so much for this post, Rachel!

    • Good points here. When I read out loud, alone, it’s part of the drafting/revising process, to discover what’s there and revise toward it (or maybe away from it?).

      When I read out loud to an audience, it’s to express/communicate what I think/hope is there by now.

      If I read out loud to an audience during the drafting stage, still to discover, I thank them in advance, and usually learn a lot in the attempt.

      I love to read, and to hear, the different voices applied to a poem in workshop. So much comes out!

      The one thing I resist (that still annoys me) is if someone tries to psychoanalyze me in a workshop, based on the poem. I see that as separate from 1) interpretation or 2) feedback. The poem is a made thing and a work of art. I see (my) poetry as art, not therapy. But that’s a separate issue. Sort of. I embrace the subconscious aspect of poetry that you mention, Hannah, but I resist being analyzed instead of interpreted.

      Some people do see poetry as therapy, and I can respect that. For them. That’s not what I’m doing.

      • I would add, though, that because poetry comes with such deft that it marks the listener’s with such poignancy they sometimes interpret as someone sharing a moment of intimacy. We, all, who enjoy communicating through the arts realize that what we share with others is a part of us for their enjoyment and there interpretation therefore we ‘give it up’. Once it’s released from our creative cove we no longer have any control over the recipients interpretation. (“I’m just say’n”)

  5. Pingback: Bees’ Knees Special Editions: Nic Sebastian of Whale Sound « The Bees Knees Blog

  6. Pingback: Reading Advice: pace, tone and upward inflection | Voice Alpha

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