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!)