Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Reading Advice: pace, tone and upward inflection


First reading: Second reading:

Dear Voice Alpha: I am submitting herewith audio recordings for your online clinic.

Scot Siegel

(Scot reads The Fires by Ann Tweedy from Voice Alpha‘s donated poems list. If you would like Voice Alpha to comment on your reading, guidelines for submission are here.)

Voice Alpha responds:


I listened to both recordings several times, but didn’t hear much difference. So, if you’re thinking that the two interpretations are radically different, that fact didn’t come through to me (it has occurred to me to wonder about the quality of sound as I listen on a very old work computer, so I offer that as caveat).

I think your voice has a lovely timbre; it made me think of a dark wood somewhere with a distant cottage glowing in welcome. I also admired your even pacing and how you didn’t rush to get to the end.

However, I noticed that your voice got quieter and quieter throughout section 2 of the poem, and by the end, I thought it was almost too quiet, with no variation or moderation (except for the way you said “not”) in how you said the words.

But I did like the way you gave the word not (in the last line) special emphasis. I listened before I looked at the print version, and I was expecting the word to have its own line in the print version. Your interpretation of that line really worked for me.


Dear Scot – I also didn’t see much difference between the two recordings. The second reading sounded slightly more natural or conversational, yet I got the same feeling from both.

Your pacing and the way you handled the line breaks was good, but the tones of your voice, although welcoming (as Kristin said), were singular and hushed, giving me the effect of being lulled rather than engaged. For some poems, this might be effective, but I think that this piece, especially the second stanza, needs some variation in stress and tone to give the same impact that it gives on the page.


Dear Scot: I am fascinated by the sound of the vehicle in the second reading, just when the truck goes lurching on down the road. Is that intentional? I also hear very faint background music… I appreciate the clarity of your voice in these readings, and the somber tone. I don’t hear much difference in the pacing or emotion between the two readings, though, and they are both a bit slow, too measured. I yearn for more energy and restrained emotion in your voice. I like that your voice has a simplicity to it, matching the bare honest statements in the poem, but I think you can let yourself respond to the terrible and fearful truths stated there. Oh, the poor oxen! Oh, the real fear of being swept away! I’d like to hear a wince in the voice as the blood spurts out of the hole. I’d like to hear the real possibility of being swept away by the ocean of love.


Dear Scot – In the first reading, your approach to the second section of the poem struck me as too lacking in expression, too close to monotone, but I feel as if you went at least half-way toward fixing the problem in the second reading. I think the pacing is great in both; it’s just a question of intonation. To be specific, I’d give more emphasis, in the form of higher (or possibly sharply falling) intonation, to loved and engulf and a bit more to choose, along the lines of the emphasis you’ve already applied to words, shimmery ripples and slake. I didn’t care for the pause after straight. Donna is right about a lulling effect from this reading, but I don’t think you’re very far at all from something more fully engaging.


Dear Scot – I find your volume, clarity of diction and breath control all excellent. Your voice is warm and very pleasant on the ear. Where I had issues was with your pace and tone/inflection choices. I felt there is a lot of movement in this piece (the verb choices in themselves are so dynamic – spurted, squirmed, lurched, consumes, cresting, engulf, swept away) and seem to demand both a faster pace and a more energetic & varied delivery. Your slow pace and somewhat unvaried tone presented to me a melancholy and resigned speaker who is not the conflicted, anxiety-ridden speaker that I find in the text.

All that said, I can well see that these are subjective ‘editorial’ choices and that your reading of the poem is informed by your personal understanding of the piece which is just that – your understanding. (And, as Rachel Dacus said in her excellent recent blog post for Voice Alpa “the poem, ultimately, belongs to the reader.”)

Now I’m going to get all nit-picky and zero in on upward inflection as I did in my response to Risa’s post. It seems to me that inflecting upward is the most over-used and ‘lazy’ habit in the poetry-reader’s book, and one I think it is easiest for us to fall into – I think because at some subconscious level we all just naturally think it is poetic. I speak from experience. Inflecting upward was something I did frequently in the early days at Whale Sound and still do more than I like. Once I heard it and began listening for it, I was embarrassed by how much I used it. I’ve been training myself to avoid and/or use it sparingly, and it’s a continuing daily struggle.

I find it helps to think of one’s voice as a musical instrument, one that needs – as any instrument does – care, attention, understanding, coaxing. Get to know your voice – what it likes and doesn’t like; what about it you can control, what about it is beyond your control; what it does well, where it is weak. If it does something you like, stop and focus on how it did it, so you can reproduce it the next time. Catch it where it’s lazy. Think about substitutes for the lazy tricks. Record yourself reading other people’s poems (not your own – they are no use here!) frequently; listen to your own voice, in its own right, frequently. Develop trust in your voice, let it guide you – it often knows things your brain is completely clueless about.

As I said to Risa, inflecting upward is not necessarily bad in itself – we just don’t want so much of it in any one piece that it ends up being a fundamental element of the aural texture of the piece as we are presenting it. I bold below where I heard it in your first reading and underline where I heard it in the second reading. I heard these words – different words, appearing in different ’emotional places’ in the poem – presented nonetheless with the same tone/inflection each time. The ear remembers these things and joins the dots when deciding on a final overall impression.

today i remember the two oxen
tied by their horns to the rails
of a flatbed truck in mexico.
the horn of one had come off and
blood spurted from the hole.
the animal squirmed with pain
as the truck lurched along the road

today the fear of being loved
consumes me. i stare straight
at the cresting wave that will
engulf me and report how weak
and hesitant it is, as if my words
could hold it at bay. as if
shimmery ripples would slake me.
as if i could choose
not to be swept away

I continue to meditate on Paul Stevens’ comment at this post where he defines authentic readings as ones where the reader “seems to be talking (italics mine), not self-consciously reciting.” I think reading a poem as if you are ‘just talking’ to your audience is excellent advice. Trust the text and trust your voice – they will give you the stresses and inflections and variety of tone called for by the poem, if you just get out of the way and let them do it. I’ll end with this effective reading (hat tip Kelli Russell Agodon), which is one where I think the reader does just that:


Previous Voice Alpha reading advice:

What to do about ‘slavish attachment to iambic pentameter’ (W.F. Lantry)
Issues with breath, returning to reading in public after years (Risa Denenberg)

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.

3 thoughts on “Reading Advice: pace, tone and upward inflection

  1. Dear Kristin, Donna, Kathleen, Dave, and Nic:

    I appreciate your careful review of the two recordings. I enjoyed reading “The Fires” for Voice Alpha and your comments are spot-on. Just to set the record straight, the truck noise in the background happened by coincidence. When I realized it would interrupt the recording, I decided to keep pushing on with hope the timing would work out. Stranger things have happened in public poetry readings. Thanks, again, for your feedback. Please let me know if I can return the favor. -Scot

    • Scot –

      You may be able to return the favor for us soon! Keep watching Voice Alpha for some reading attempts of the same poem by the Voice Alpha crew
      – we would love your comments when that post goes up!

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

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