Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

12 thoughts on “‘For to-day we have naming of parts’ – Henry Reed, no – Dylan Thomas!

  1. That was fascinating. I tried to listen to Pinsky’s version first and was bored to tears. Dylan’s was second and I had to check the text: was this the same poem? Really? It was! I couldn’t believe it. When I listened to Reed and Duncan, I couldn’t figure out what the heck Reed was doing with that sonorous tone. The words themselves have enough weight without his adding all that extra melodrama.

    I read a short book by Pinsky years ago when I was still trying to figure out how to create pleasing sounds in my poetry: “The Sounds of Poetry-A Brief Guide.” It was somewhat useful, though I found myself disagreeing with some of what he said in the book, even back then when I knew very little (not that I know all that much now). When I went online to listen to him read, I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. It took several more years before I finally admitted to myself that Pinsky isn’t a great reader; I was horrified at myself–he was a poet laureate, for goodness sake! How could he not be a good reader? Nevertheless, what you said above is spot on: I don’t understand how he handles rhythm and his stresses seem random. Even when he reads his own poetry, this holds true. When he reads his poem “Shirt” by the third stanza it sounds like he’s trying to swallow his consonants and I grow distracted. And it’s very odd how everything ends with the voice going up. Up, up, up.

  2. I just listened to ‘Shirt’ and I agree. I don’t know what’s going on – what he does is very deliberate and there is definitely some kind of drumbeat going on, even though I can make no emotional sense of it. He has written and thought on ‘sound’ so extensively over the years that maybe he has just over-thought it to the point where it has become a whole separate language, dear and intelligible to him, but not so much to others…?

  3. Dylan Thomas’s reading is, of course, brilliant. He was as great an elocutionist as he was a poet. I could listen to that man for hours, and must go in search of more of his recordings – I had A Child’s Christmas in Wales at one point.

    But Henry Reed, this was my second favourite. Why? No, he’s not an actor, he’s not giving us a performance. But his parsing of phrases, that helped with understanding the poem in the cadences of clause, that underlie image structure, in which it was written. Reed brings a clarity (of parsing) that I found Duncan, despite his beautiful reading in different voices, lacked, and Pinsky’s, oh dear I couldn’t even listen all the way through.

    On another rating, Dylan’s was the most musical reading, followed by Duncan, then Reed, and Pinsky’s, well, I don’t think he merged with the poem enough for it to speak in its musicality through his larynx.

    But I still put Reed 2nd for his parsing of the syntax of the poem, which did help me to grasp it in its entirety better. He read it as bytes of meaning, rather than rhythms of crafted poetry with it’s repetitions, alliterations, etc., which made it a fascinating listen.

  4. Brenda wrote: He [Reed] read it as bytes of meaning, rather than rhythms of crafted poetry with its repetitions, alliterations, etc.

    He definitely did, Brenda – I think you are spot-on. And you’ve also defined the problem with Pinsky’s reading – he read the poem, not as bytes of meaning, but as ‘rhythms of crafted poetry with its repetitions, alliterations, etc.’

    Which doesn’t mean that you don’t hear/absorb the elements of craft through Thomas’ reading or through Reed’s — they just trust their voice and the text to convey these elements and they trust the reader to pick them up – they don’t stand at the podium pointing out each one to the reader as it comes along with the pointer of their voice.

    I agree Reed did get the meaning across very clearly. I found his reading affected, though. However, since listening preferences are so subjective, I am perfectly willing to allow you Reed as your second choice!

    Thanks so much for your enlightening comments – much appreciated! Nic

  5. ps I think the Pinsky suffers from bad recording quality, the sound is distorting on my computer speakers, which makes listening difficult. If the levels had been set better, the reading would sit in comfortable audio range and probably be much closer to what it would sound like if you had been in the room when he was reading. So I don’t want to be unfair, not the best reading, no, but made far worse by the technical aspects of the recording itself.

  6. Thanks, Nic, I just saw your reply. If I had to teach this poem to a class of up and coming readers, I’d probably say, listen to Reed, get the parsing of syntax, the phrasing of clauses, that conveys the meaning, and then read with Dylan’s musicality.

    Dylan’s reading is about as perfect as it can get. He takes it up a notch, to art. A reading that’s a poetry in itself.

  7. Pingback: trusting (or not) the text, your voice & the audience | Very Like A Whale

  8. Oh, yes, Frank Duncan marvelously enters into the character of the Sergeant-Major! I love the two-voice version, where Reed’s own voice then is the inner voice of the young soldier learning what he has to do with the gun and holding himself together with the flowers.

    I think Reed then does a good job on his own with the businesslike rendition of the Sergeant-Major and the inner voice; he is reading the poem as he wrote it.

    Dylan Thomas is wonderfully musical whenever he reads, and I love how he throws himself into the two voices. I think he gets a bit “precious,” too, Nic, trying to distinguish the soldier’s voice from the officer’s voice. Perhaps it’s a risk in the poem itself!

    Thanks so much for gathering the readings here for us!

  9. Thanks for commenting, Kathleen – it’s always very instructive to hear different takes on the same readings. Best, N

  10. Pingback: of speech impediments and reading poetry out loud | Voice Alpha

  11. For me I think the Sergeant Major is a loud cockney who is mechanistic and without sensitivity whereas the poet is quiet, sensitive and reflective.

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