Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

accents & dialects in reading poetry aloud


Check out this interesting exchange. Excerpt:

…one difficulty that will exist when we are reading poetry from poets around the world is the ‘musicality’ of the poetry.
Poetry is essentially to be read aloud but I am a Northern Englishman, Yorkshire to be exact, and my vowel sounds are distinctively different from any American or Australian voice. For me to read aloud the poetry of some one from Alabama, say, is like playing the violin concerto on a trombone, it doesn’t sound the way the composer wrote it or conceived it.

As a general rule, I wouldn’t make too much of this issue. After all, here at Voice Alpha and in Whale Sound group readings, we regularly have a whole bunch of different accents reading the same piece and to me, accent is just one of a range of interesting & individual elements the individual reader brings to any reading.

However, I recently had occasion to think about a related point. Whale Sound takes third-party submissions and recently a very cool poet sent in this poem as a third-party submission. It’s a tremendous piece by Bahamas poet Desiree Cox, and it starts like this:

Well. When I see Sister Sheila step out
Face paint up like Jezebel
Royal blue satellite dish of a Sunday hat
Kick off to one side
Breasts mountain ranging
Strapless, under skirt suit the color of Caribbean Sea
Striding, her hard farm funnel foot
Squeeze-up tight
In navy-blue battleship shoes
I thought my hour had come
Lord knows I likes to die.

I really hate to turn down third-party submissions, because (frankly) they don’t come along nearly as frequently as I would like, but I definitely quailed here. This wonderful poem is written in a dialect that (to my mind) is constituted by two aspects – one the grammatical conventions used and the second, actual pronunciation of the words. Reading the grammar as presented would be one thing. But I’m a one-trick pony when it comes to pronunciation and have never considered trying to adopt other accents in my Whale Sound readings. I think I’d be very bad at it and would just make everyone cringe in the process.

What do you think? Assuming you yourself are not from the Bahamas or its dialectically-related region, would you read Dr. Cox’s poem out loud for an audience? And if so, how would you treat it?

(And would you read this by Robert Burns to an audience?

Nae doubt but they were fain o’ ither,
An’ unco pack an’ thick thegither;
Wi’ social nose whyles snuff’d an’ snowket;
Whyles mice and modewurks they howket;
Whyles scour’d awa in lang excursion,
An’ worry’d ither in diversion;
Till tir’d at last wi’ mony a farce,
They set them down upon their arse,
An’ there began a lang digression
About the lords o’ the creation.)

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.

6 thoughts on “accents & dialects in reading poetry aloud

  1. I just had a similar dilemma when reading a poem for my friend Clive’s retrospective, to go on a tape loop by a painting. It contained several Welsh words. First we started out with the idea that they should be pronounced properly. Well, it sounded ridiculous, partly because one of them was impossible for me, but partly because the rhythmical demands (a blank verse poem) made shifting from American English to Welsh very odd. It was hard not to leave a space between English and Welsh and lose the metrical line. Finally we settled on an Americanized version of the difficult word. And it sounded infinitely better…

    I can do a good North Carolina backwoods mountain accent (learned in high school before t.v. and roads swept away the enclaves of mountain people), and I have occasionally used it to read Shakespeare sonnets aloud (no, I will not record it!) to get a feel for Elizabethan English, as it is supposed to be the closest we have.

    The Cox piece enforces rhythms in a way that I think would still sound good in a standard English reading. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would work, I imagine.

    I have heard Burns read recently (at a Robbie Burns party) with an Americanized Scots accent, and it did reasonably well. The thing is too have punch, panache, and flair and sail on through without flinching. Any faltering is fatal. (Wow, just talking about Robbie Burns brings on some wild alliteration!)

    Time always changes English, and our poems that we believe are settled and firm when complete are not. We must make them as best we can, but even if distant accents don’t change them, time will either abolish them utterly or revise them as a language changes. But all art is this way, isn’t it? Paintings darken, metals corrode, many precious things are completely lost. Selah.

  2. Absolutely not. If the poem is in dialect then it’s using language in its most culturally contextualised form. Unless the reader can claim some kind of oral authority – sharing the writer’s context or the ability to mimic to the level of high art – s/he should leave it well alone. Patronising at best, grotesquely insulting at worst. Not poetry, I know, but we can all go along with the late James Doohan’s mish-mash mangling of a Scottish accent as Scotty in the original ‘Star Trek’. But how comfortable are we with a white middle-class choir offering up a rendition of ‘negro’ dialect in some creaky old spiritual?

    Anyone want to have a crack at these? Me neither.


  3. Sorry, guys, the middle link went bananas, but they all work.

  4. One important thing in my opinion, is the fact that the way we pronounce words gives them different music. When I read a poem by Geoffrey Philp, I know I am not “singing” the exact notes he intended. The choice of the word by the poet is based on how the poet says and hears that word.

    Same for Rustum Kozain, who “sings” with a South African accent. When I read their poems, I try (joyfully but surely off the mark) to read like they intended the poems to be heard.

    I would have liked to have had an example or two here, but no, I have none. Poems written with an accent that is more than mere pronunciation, are beyond me. I read them quietly and understand what I’m reading, but the music is mute.

    I speak English with a Lesotho accent. A few times, with a “finished” poem, I have heard how others (Brits or ‘Mercans) actually say a word in my poem, and I have been surprised, because such a word suddenly stuck out, and became a bit awkward.

  5. Dick, Rethabile – thanks for commenting. I find my thinking evolving on this question. It all goes back to the question of ownership, it seems – once a poem is released into the world, frankly anything can happen to it – including being read by someone with a different accent, or with perhaps not so deep a grasp of the poet’s particular dialect. Is that the end of the poem, is that all-negative for the poem? Dunno – seems more about poets’ reactions than what accrues to the poems themselves, to me.

  6. Pingback: 25 voices for one speech | Voice Alpha

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