Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

To read or to recite? Dramatic versus Epic


I came late to the debate about reading versus recitation and just about everything that I’d have been minded to contribute was more than eloquently dealt with in the comments that followed the initial post. However, a process of thought was set in motion and I offer up its products in the hope that they might augment a fascinating discussion.

My training and subsequent career were in drama and for me the declaration of poetry out loud, whether from the page or as learned recitation, is all about performance. The distinction between the two (for me) is all about intention: what response your presentation is designed to evoke in your audience. Learned delivery involves one set of very specific and characteristic criteria; read delivery involves a distinctly different characteristic modality.

Many of you will be familiar with Aristotle’s treatise On Poetics, in which he differentiates between specific poetic genres. Certain of his propositions were subsequently reiterated by Goethe and Schiller, adapting them for their theatrical needs in the late 18th century, and then by poet and playwright Bertold Brecht in the early 20th century.

All three were particularly interested (albeit with differing emphases) in Aristotle’s presentation of the opposing modes of the Dramatic and the Epic. As narrative, the former provides the immediacy of the event unfolding in the moment through dramatic performance, structured so as to evoke in the audience emotional identification with situation and character and a sense of participation in the narrative. The latter provides the detached descriptive account, maybe delivered by a narrator or a chorus, relating events after they have occurred, structured so as to engage the audience’s capacity for objective evaluation as the story is told.

The plays of Goethe and Schiller – like their Greek counterparts – were written in verse. But Brecht, writing his highly politicised post-naturalistic ‘Epic Theatre’ largely in prose, refined the differentiation, actively requiring the distancing of the audience from emotional identification, encouraging instead, through a range of specific performance and design techniques, rational understanding and considered evaluation on the part of the spectator. Not least amongst these techniques was the actor presenting his/her part in the third person singular, as if commenting on the action as it actually unfolds.

I see similar contrasting dynamics at work in, respectively, the learned poetic text performed to an audience and the text that is read from a printed source, interposed, as it were, between reader and recipient, acting as barrier and conduit at one and the same time.

It seems to me that the entire point of the learned text in performance is the engagement of the audience’s emotional attention. Whether the performer is delivering the poem indirectly to the audience in the manner of a ‘fourth wall’ presentation requiring the fictional notion of an unobserved real event unfolding in real time or directly to the audience as a face en face encounter, an emotional commitment is being required. The very phenomenon of performance itself will engage the spectator/listener’s feelings and the greater portion of those subtle nuances and allusions that are part of any poem of substance will be hostage to its processes.

However, the physical interposition of text is also going to impose very specific constraints on both the scale and character of the delivery. Any emotive intentions on the part of the reader are going to be invested entirely in the vocal techniques that are going to be employed principally in simply ‘telling the tale’ – cadence, tone, pitch, pause, rhythm and the like.

But the very fact of this disembodiment of performance presents not just as limiting but as liberating too. Limiting because performance is invisible and thus purely oral/aural. But liberating because in the distancing of the audience from the emotional relationship with the performer, the reader can, in the manner of the ‘epic’ narrator, simultaneously tell the tale beguilingly and, in the manner of the telling, commentate on it too.

So for me the priority in the delivery of poetry to an audience is the integrity of the text. In this respect the poem should be speaking me: I am the vehicle, not the poem. And to my mind this priority can only be accorded via the medium of the read text (this being subject, of course, to whatever skills I can muster for the task!)

Author: Dick Jones

I'm a retired Drama teacher, looking after a young family while my partner earns the dough. I have a grown-up son and daughter, two grandchildren and three young children from my second marriage. I write - principally poetry but prose too, both fitfully published. My poetry collection Ancient Lights is published by Phoenicia Publishing (www.phoeniciapublishing.com) and my translation of Blaise Cendrars' 'Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France' is published by Old Stile Press (www.oldstilepress.com). I play bass guitar in two bands, the song-based Moorby Jones, playing entirely original material (https://www.facebook.com/moorbyjones?ref=aymt_homepage_panel) and blues, rags, hoots and hollers trio, Broke Down Engine (http://patteran.typepad.com/sonny_blacks_roots_blues/) I also blog at Dick Jones' Patteran Pages - http://patteran.typepad.com. and I'm a radio ham. My callsign is G0 EUV.

18 thoughts on “To read or to recite? Dramatic versus Epic

  1. Excellent article. Wish more people honored the integrity of the text.

  2. “It seems to me that the entire point of the learned text in performance is the engagement of the audience’s emotional attention.”

    YES! And I like what you say about poetry readings as disembodied performance–totally. I often wonder if we should hand out printed pamphlets of the poems being read that evening…

  3. Often the most interesting part of a poetry reading — especially if you’re already familiar with the poetry — is the commentary, asides about how the poem came to be written, or little remarks that show where the poet keeps that poem now in the living room of her mind — is it a comfortable old afghan, a treasured vase, an embarrassing knick knack?

    Great essay, Dick.

  4. There’s plenty of food for thought for me here specifically because of some thinking prompted by a recent event, or set of events. As I expect you know, Dick (but readers outside the UK may not) recently in the run-up to the announcement of the winner of the T S Eliot prize, each day on BBC Radio 4 they broadcast one of the shortlisted poets reading from the relevant collection (you may still be able to listen to these on the BBC website – I haven’t checked). What surprised me was how often the poets managed to make their work sound prosaic. A poem broadcast on radio, or played on a recording, interposes another physical barrier between poet and listener, making the performance even more disembodied. I agree with your suggestion that a good performance of a poem can have a liberating effect on it, but here it seemed almost like the opposite. I rarely felt that the work was in any way liberated by this process – on the contrary, it seemed to constrain it even more. Away from the page, with no visual indications (like line-breaks and other aspects of arrangement) several times, I caught myself thinking I was listening to a bit of well-turned reportage from ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, or a clever narrative from ‘Home Truths’. If the integrity of the text is the priority (and I agree unreservedly that it is) I would expect a reader to want to find ways of presenting the whole text – not just the words, but the poem’s textual arrangement (I’m thinking aloud here, without the benefit of specialist experience or expertise, so I hope that makes some sense!). This is not a plea for a return to some histrionic form of declaiming with heavy-handed traditional rhythms, metres and rhymes. Nor am I offering any simple solutions (and I’ll be going back and listening to extant recordings of me reading my own work with a more critical ear). But I’m surprised when poets don’t feel the need to ensure that listeners hearing poetry should know that poetry is what they are hearing.

    • Those BBC readings are online here. I was going to do a Voice Alpha post commenting on the readings, but by the time I’d made my way through all of them, did not feel as enthusiastic about the idea as when I started.

  5. Many thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Re-reading the post I realise that, rather churlishly, I didn’t credit Dave Bonta for the excellent piece that sparked off this latest sequence of to-ing and fro-ing on poetry-out-loud.

    I’ve been at poetry readings where copies of poems were handed out prior to the reading, Hannah. Not keen on that: smacks too much of the classroom. Like we’re going to be asked questions afterwards.

    I guess the thing about commentary, Dale, is knowing just how much context to provide without doing the work of the poem in advance. We’ve all been at poetry readings where someone has offloaded all the data first, rendering the poem a sort of wrinkled, deflated balloon. I’m reminded of a Jules Feiffer cartoon in which an appropriately Rapunzel-haired, home-weave folk singer explains through five of the six frames the song’s provenance, meaning, socio-political significance, modal setting and imagistic importance within the tradition only to announce in the last frame that she’s forgotten the words.

    Absolutely with you, Ray, regarding the T.S. Eliot Prize readings. Some of them were grim. In fact, I’m not sure about well-turned reportage: one or two sounded as if they were being delivered by the Undead!

    There’s been much debate here at Voice Alpha on the techniques and protocols of live reading and I don’t think anything hard-and-fast emerged, although a number of general principles were discussed very usefully. But one simple, undeniable fact is clear: some poets are crap at reading and neither the dynamics of the live situation nor the intimacy of the studio will make any difference.

    That having been said, there is much that can be caught by careful listening to poets whose delivery one admires and taught by those whose skills in technique are a speciality. There is a wide margin of happy medium between the shoe-gazer’s mumble and the histrionic’s overkill.

    Re. your important point about the live delivery of the textual layout of the poem, much hangs on what the poet actually wants from the arrangement of the words on the page. Sometimes the structure is designed as architecture and the reading of the poem must be guided by the precise placing of staircases, doors and balconies. To depart from the shape of the poem in the reading is to risk injury or death! But for other poets the textual layout is a function of visual aesthetic and the live reading of the piece is, in fact, guided more by semantic, emotional or rhetorical priorities. All of which is dictated by the individual poet’s requirements and the listener may have no clue as to which set of principles guide his/her work.

    All in all, the poet’s absolute priority in a live reading must be to capture the listener’s closest attention from the start and then to retain it unwaveringly throughout. Which is all to do with weaving spells and whilst training in technique may help with the winding up process, the rest is mystery!

  6. Terrific post, Dick. I especially valued what you said about the difference between Narrative and Epic poetry in performance; for all my reading of the classics I’ve never read Aristotle’s treatise, nor heard this explained so clearly! This is also making me think about the difficulties some of us face in reading Biblical texts aloud – some poetic and some not, but I’m aware every single week of who does it well and who doesn’t; some lectors are able to quiet an entire cathedral down and really make people listen to the poetry of the words, and I suspect it’s because a)they practiced at home and b)they internalized the text enough so that they could become the vehicle for the words, as you emphasize above. As an occasional lector myself, I’ve been aware of the exact moment when the listeners begin to listen; it’s a palpable thing, and I’m sure familiar to most people who “perform” in words. Thanks for this!

  7. This has provoked some thought for me, Dick. It’s pertinent to short story readings also, I think, having encountered more than a few writers who have employed actors to perform their work at readings. Interesting shift going on here.

  8. Many thanks for that, Beth. Well, I guess in no single place is poetry uttered out loud more regularly than church. And how frequently the magnificent cadences of the Psalms in the King James version ring out around the vaulting like bus departure announcements! But what an opportunity is presented to the reader, both in terms of available acoustics and context: a building designed with the delivery of the spoken and sung word in mind and a captive audience. Even a heathen like me will take heed if the reader is a.) conscious of the majesty of the language and its properties in purely poetic terms, and b.) has the tongue and the tubes for the job! Palpable, indeed, then, because believer and non-believer alike will be having their spirituality contacted.


    Poetry and prose alike, Rachel, yes. On balance, I think I’d rather risk the actor’s rendition of the story because his/her training and experience is going to favour the delivery of narrative – scene-setting, description, character depiction etc. – and the poet’s way with the poem because of his/her direct relationship with the piece.

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  10. Excellent arguments Dick and I’m very glad to see the side upon which you descend. The very thought of learning the texts of my own poems (much less anyone else’s) makes me quake in my boots! I like the security of the words in front of me; they are rather a cloak of invisibility in which to get lost and I think the performance is only enhanced by the performer being totally pulled into the text. At least that’s how it works for me.

  11. Love this! Love its rootedness in theatre history and in the moment of connection!

  12. Hi Kat. Me too re learning the text. I have some difficulty even remembering the titles of my poems, much less the content! Just to blow any drama credibility I might have claimed in the writing of the piece… I like the notion of a ‘cloak of invisibility’ arising from reading text rather than performing it.

    Thank you, Kathleen. I note from your excellent blog that you have been an actor. It would be interesting to have your take on the text-versus-performance issue.

  13. Absolutely true! Have you ever had a snippet of something in your mind and thought, Who the heck wrote that? only to realize it was you yourself?

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  16. Wonderful site, thanks for sharing !!

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