Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Separation Anxiety: Poem and Performance


Having attended several different reading events over the last few months, I find myself wondering if an audience can separate the quality of a poem’s craft from the quality of its presentation by the reader.

Over the years, I have heard many less-than-interesting readings of poems that I found exquisitely crafted on the page. This is an issue I have thought about often, especially regarding “famous” poets whose readings have disappointed. I can always find comfort in returning to poems I have previously enjoyed on the page and rediscovering their merits in that way.

This separation is also easy when the readings are found on websites that feature audio. Here, I can listen and then re-read without the sound if I find that the reading does not enhance the poem for me.

At a live reading event, if I am hearing lines and phrases that I want to revisit, I am willing to purchase the book or seek out the poet’s work online to see how the words play out on the page. This part of the equation is easy for me to wrap my brain around: good writing stands out, whether it is well-read or not.

But I have been challenged lately by the opposite dynamic:  what if the reader is engaging and confident, but the material seems amateurish, not well-crafted, or simply not to the listener’s taste?

I understand that any discussion of quality relies on subjectivity – the eye of the beholder, and all that. I have become frustrated, however, when a reader performs a poem that pays little attention to craft, relying solely on stage presence (and sometimes on intimidating volume) to “sell” a poem to an audience. It is akin to watching a band full of musicians jump around and make a lot of noise, but not really know how to play a song.

Many audiences respond positively to these performances as entertainment, which means the reading evidently works on some level. Yet I often have a difficult time separating the entertainment value of a reading from the level of writing in the poem. I have no strategy (as I do above for the other problem) to separate the words from the way they are being spoken.

So, what do you think? Should the quality of the poem itself be considered when you are deciding whether or not a reader is effective? If you can separate the two, please leave a comment. I would love to know how!

Author: Donna Vorreyer

Poet. Teacher. Open mind. Open heart. Refuses to grow old.

11 thoughts on “Separation Anxiety: Poem and Performance

  1. Hey Donna – I know this isn’t what you are saying, but I wonder if this issue isn’t part of the reason why the poetry establishment in general pays so little attention to generating tradecraft resources for reading poetry aloud? A sense that ‘performers’ can (and do) peddle technically sub-par wares ergo ‘performance’ is not for the (text-centered) pure of heart…?

    My feeling is that poems have a double life – poem-as-text and poem-as-voice, and that each is an independent artefact, even as they are mutually dependent.

    Listening for and identifying the ‘sub-par’ – whether you are the reader of the poem or a member of the audience – is excellent training, I would say. Most of us find it easy to evaluate ‘poem-as-text.’ As poets, peddling sound, shouldn’t we surely find it just as easy to evaluate ‘poem-as-voice’? The fact that we don’t (and I’m with you on this), probably goes back to my first point above.

  2. Nic – You may be on to something. Poem-as-voice for me, I guess, cannot be truly moving without some sort of technical/textual expertise. Which is why I have trouble separating them. The lack of resources for poets to develop their reading skills may be related to this, as you note.

    Luckily, there are resources starting to appear for reading help. In Chicago, the Vox Ferus workshops (website currently down – sorry!) alternate between traditional workshopping and working on reading skills. I have heard wonderful things about them.

  3. Of course it is possible to separate voice and text, if you want to. Sometimes, listening on Whale Sounds (or other venues where one can listen to the poem), I want to see the text after listening, sometimes I want to see it while listening, sometimes, I just listen and am well fed. Personally, I don’t listen or read poetry in order to pass critical judgment on the text, although if a poem read aloud is not well read, it certainly suffers for it. When I am reading a poem, I often read it aloud to find a closer connection to the text. The comparison that leaps to mind, though, is music and lyrics. Often lyrics don’t stand alone without the music, although there are wonderful exceptions (eg, Dylan, Leonard Cohen). But really bad lyrics are not redeemed by music, in my opinion. When you speak about performance, though, I do think there is that other element of connecting with the audience on an emotional level, and yes, that can be accomplished with schlocky, shocky, dramatic or sentimental texts that are easily exposed if viewed on the page.

  4. “When you speak about performance, though, I do think there is that other element of connecting with the audience on an emotional level, and yes, that can be accomplished with schlocky, shocky, dramatic or sentimental texts that are easily exposed if viewed on the page.” Risa, this is exactly what I mean.

    I don’t listen to judge, either, but if the performance exposes (wish I would have thought of this word) the text to be any of the things you mentioned, can it still be an entertaining performance? A good poem is a good poem (using whatever criteria one uses for evaluation) even if it is poorly read, but I’m not sure this works in the reverse.

  5. I’ve been musing on your post since I first read it, Donna, and I find the discussion here fascinating and provocative, too. Nic’s “double life of the poem” approach helps me a lot, and I’ve noticed that for many years now I have proceeded in that way, whether listening to poems at readings or writing/revising my own. Reading aloud while writing helps me compose and revise, and reading aloud for an audience, to see how a poem lands, continues that process; reading a finished or published poem aloud at a reading extends the gift part of the process, the sharing, and is an ephemeral experience, with the text available (in a more lasting way, in print) to anyone who cares to pursue it later.

    What you and Risa bring out as a troubling thing–the intense and seeming successful sharing of what turns out to be “schlocky” or “sentimental” or, I think I hear you, Donna, as suggesting just not good–also makes it hard for good readers because, as I’ve mentioned before, if someone is a good poet AND a good reader, there is always someone in the audience who still assumes the poems must not be good because they were read so well. Sigh…round and round we go.

    What helps me is just to go to a reading, listen with an open heart (and open ears and open mind), and suspend all judgment. I just turn off the judging mode! This helps me in the theatre, too. I go to be delighted, to learn something, and to pay attention. If something sticks with me after the ephemeral delight, or if I am riveted during the event, I will make a great effort to seek out the poet’s work. If I am weary during the reading, then probably, no, and if, after some delight, I cannot recall an image or phrase or feeling past the moment of its delivery, then likewise.

    Now, participating here has made me turn the judging mode back on at times, and I find it disturbs me to do so. I might say something that hurts someone’s feelings just in the effort to help the reader be a better reader-aloud-of-poetry. So I apologize!

    And I confess that I think reading aloud well is probably itself one of those hard-to-explain things. We can talk about pacing and enunciation, etc., but it might come down to commitment and the ability to trust, to give over to the text, in a way that can’t be taught, really. As Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Likewise, if I feel compelled to listen, I know that is a good reader!

    Nic always has this quality, and it may be from some essential generosity and trust. She gives over to the poem during the reading. She says she practices and tries several times, and this is all part of it, but, ultimately, it is a giving over of self to text, using all that self has to give, including pacing, enunciation, volume, the technical stuff, but it is not the technical that accomplishes the giving. It is the giving.

    If you do that with someone else’s poem, as Nic advocates, the generosity is visible, too, in that impulse.

    If you do it with your own poem, it is also generous, if, as William Faulkner said about his novels, you see that the works of art are like children, and have lives of their own. You are giving them their lives and sending them off into the world well prepared if you read them well!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Kathleen!

      I think I understand what you are saying – I think of it as the difference between reading the poem to the audience from inside the poem versus reading to them from outside the poem, and try to think of each poem as having (or even being) a skin one has to get into.

  6. And, of course, kids have separation anxiety, too.

  7. I think that there is a difference between being judgmental and being discerning or offering critique. You shouldn’t feel badly about any critique offered in the spirit of improvement. And, quite frankly, any response to the arts contains a judgment at some point. I think that most of us go into any art experience with open minds – that doesn’t mean that we are rude or scornful if the experience is negative for us. But we should not be afraid to have opinions that are not warm and fuzzy. I think that the buzzword here is respectfulness.

  8. Thanks for the good reminders. And “respectfulness” is in my American Heritage Dictionary!

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