Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Reading advice: What to do about a ‘slavish attachment to iambic pentameter’?


Dear Voice Alpha: In response to your impassioned plea for a brave poetic soul to step forward to accept friendly advice on their reading technique from the Voice Alpha gang, I attach a poem sound file of Möbius (originally published at Umbrella Journal where it received a 2010 Best of the Net nomination) read by my husband, W.F. Lantry, the resident professional poet.

Obviously, the poem is his own work, and I admit that it wasn’t until we had made the sound file, after many, many false starts and discarded takes, that I reread the guidelines and saw that you prefer the poem to be someone else’s. Well, it may be more instructive for Bill to read his own poem so you can hear his often slavish attachment to the iambic pentameter – his preferred form, sometimes at the expense of the meaning. He smoothed out several lines after hearing how it sounded, but finally admitted that he and I have a ‘theological’ disagreement over how to read. I would go for meaning over iambic pentameter accents every time. Even after we put the poem into sentences and removed all the line breaks, he still read it in pentameter. Is this some form of poetic heresy on one of our parts? Perhaps we should invoke an inquisition into offenders against the Canon. We’ll let you decide….

Awaiting the decision of the Tribunal,

Kate Fitzpatrick
on behalf of W.F. Lantry

Voice Alpha responds:


Dear Kate: I’m with you in preferring meaning over meter in the reading of this poem. The meter will underlie the reading, anyway, so you can trust it rather than emphasize it.  I think the reading would be more musical and more mobius-like, more winding and seamlessly flowing, if the poem is read at a slightly faster pace, respecting the enjambment of lines by carrying the voice past the line break onto the next line without a noticeable pause–a pulse of awareness would be OK, but not an actual pause.  There are enough places where the line has end punctuation, or a dash, or a colon, and there a pause is fine, but the poem needs the energy of flow and meaning to come through fully. Respecting the grammar and punctuation in general (the mid-line commas) will reinforce the meaning, which is good.  Right now, this is leaning toward sounding artificial, and since the art of it is there, I think letting it lean more toward the natural will keep the listener with you, listening.


Dear Kate: I concur with both your assessment and Kathleen’s. This is a beautiful technically-accomplished poem on the page. In Bill’s reading, the volume, clarity of diction and breath control are all good, but I feel the reading suffers in pace and quality from over-enunciation and from an over-emphasis on technical tools (meter and line breaks) that should buoy, but are instead weighing down, the performance. My impression is one of technical ‘over-explaining,’ which evidences to me a lack of trust, both in the text and in the audience.

I think there is a risk inherent in reading one’s own work to an audience. When you read someone else’s work, you are ‘explaining’ the poem to the audience. When you read your own work, in addition to ‘explaining’ the poem, I think you also have the opportunity – and run the risk of trying – to explain yourself. This latter process, if it kicks in, naturally undermines your trust in both the text and the audience, and from that it is a short step to ‘over-explaining.’

Let’s say reading a poem aloud is like making a model of a woman using green modeling clay. The risk when you read your own work is that as you make the green lady model which explains the poem, you may also be tempted to stick on additional bits of yellow modeling clay which explain yourself and where you were coming from when you wrote the poem. However, since those yellow ‘self’ bits inevitably lack context and relevance for the audience, the latter usually only end up wondering why there are yellow lumps on the beautiful green lady.

Bill is clearly a very accomplished poet who has a wonderfully visceral relationship with words-as-voice – he obviously lives, tastes, and feels them with great sensitivity. I would love to hear Bill read someone else’s work.


Dear Kate: At first I liked the measured voice, the slow cadence.  Then it began to annoy me.  I noticed the pauses after certain words, and I wasn’t sure why they were there (to emphasize the word?  Because we were at the end of a line?).  The pauses began to distract me, and I began to lose the meaning of the poem.  The voice itself, on the other hand, was easy on the ears–no annoyances with the actual quality of the voice.


Dear Kate: I agree with Kristin – the slow, unvaried cadence interfered with the meaning of the poem for me. I felt disconnected from the reader and thus from the poem. Reading the poem on the page, I was impressed with the beauty of the language and the sound choices. I felt that some of that was lost in the audio version of the poem.


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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.

11 thoughts on “Reading advice: What to do about a ‘slavish attachment to iambic pentameter’?

  1. My own humble opinion is the same as yours. I couldn’t bear to hear more than one poem read this way. I found myself focusing on the sound of the “attack” instead of the words themselves.

    To show the difference, it would be good to have one of you read the same poem when the consensus is that the speaker’s delivery is wanting.

  2. Donna, Kristin, Nic, Kathleen,

    Thanks for this sage advice. Donna, I promise to work on my cadence! It’s amazing how many unconscious habits we fall into. Kristin, I wonder if I haven’t developed those because most people, at readings, don’t have the poem in front of them, and it’s hard to follow a complex sequence simply by ear? It may be visual feedback (the looks on their faces) that has made me slow down?

    Nic, I think the over-enunciation does come from a lack of trust: I don’t trust my own pronunciation, due to a mild speech impediment. I tend to slur and elide when I’m not paying attention, to throw words away. So I do trust the text, and I trust the audience. I just don’t trust myself! ;) I’m also very interested in your insight about reading other people’s work. When I do a reading, I usually throw in a couple poems by someone else (J.V. Cunningham’s For My Contemporaries is a favorite), and for some reason they sound much different, even to me.

    Kathleen, I think you’ve touched the heart of the problem. Since I have a strong interest in the line as a unit, I tend to focus on that. This comes from my early training: we were always taught that a line should be one breath. So I have that in mind when I’m composing, and it’s very hard to turn around and forget that when reading. I have the same problem when watching, say, a Shakespeare play: as I listen, I reconstruct the words in my mind, not as meaning, but as lines, and I even get a little frustrated when the actors don’t pause at the end of each! Kate tells me I even tap out the meter on her arm as the play proceeds. Yikes! ;)

    I do the same when I’m listening to a poetry reading: I repeat each line in my head, as a line. This doesn’t interfere with the poet’s meaning: for me, it enhances it, and makes me pay attention to how the poem’s constructed.

    Thank you for taking the time to listen, think, and reflect on these issues. It’s incredibly valuable to me, and I hope others will learn from my bad habits!



    • You’re the best, Bill – thanks for being such a sport, and for your thoughtful & illuminating response. I can’t speak for the rest of the Voice Alpha gang, but for myself, constructing a written response to your reading was in itself a huge learning experience for me and made me articulate many things I had only been feeling in a primal pre-verbal sort of way until now. Things that will feed into the readings at Whale Sound – which is in itself a daily big reading lesson for me. Your response above, too, is very valuable. Thank you! Nic

  3. Indeed, learned a lot, and I agree that live is different from recorded. There’s a back and forth energy live, and an adjustment to whatever the real needs are in that moment.

  4. Comment by Paul Stevens on Facebook (pasted here with his permission):

    “Sorry I don’t like the reading — too dirge-like and lifeless. Give it some reality. Americans often seem to go into a kind of sing-song when they recite — is that how they are taught at school perhaps? Love the poem though — it’s a ripper and well deserves BoN!

    Good readings can be done in an infinity of ways — in this one (via Nigel Holt) John Berryman (who sounds a bit drunk!) actually seems to be talking, not self-consciously reciting.”

    [Berryman was in fact drunk during this recording]

    “but THAT particular reading HAS the quality of authentic utterance that I am trying to point to here. It actually sounds like Berryman is saying something in his own voice, not bunging on a schoolroom recite-for-the teacher voice, or a look-how-poetic-I-am-at-the-microphone voice. For a very different example of what I consider relatively authentic-sounding readings, check out Robert Graves’ clipped British upper-middle class voice on this one — it sounds like he actually talks: — compare with him spontaneously talking (in problematic British-Spanish!)”

    • The Berryman reading is so brilliant! Especially from All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears; onwards.

      Maybe we should start a ‘send in your dunken readings’ series here at Voice Alpha.

      On Graves: I know exactly what you mean about the look-how-poetic-I-am-at-the-microphone voice and how refreshing (and seriously revealing) it can be to hear someone read as if they’re just talking, but Graves in your clip is so understated and unvaried that it just sounds drab, in the end, I feel.

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

  6. Pingback: Dave reads ‘Wonder Woman’ | Voice Alpha

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