The opposite is just as true.
I’m a mediocre poet, but when I read my poems aloud they tend to go over well. They
have an impact.
I thank my blind father for that. When I was a kid I would sometimes read to him, to give him a break from braille, or his talking books, which both of us would often listen to. The readers of the talking books were always very good. We soon forgot their existence and only heard the story. I picked up on this so that when I read to Dad I tried to make the feeling and drama of the story overpower the dryness of my voice. I still read like that when I read poems to others. It works.
On the other hand, some of the best poets regularly butcher their poems. I often go to hear some of Canada’s greatest poets read at the Poetry London readings. I listen as carefully as I can but usually am left wishing they would read them over again. I’m lucky if I grasp more than half of any poem.
The voices and the style of reading are usually so distracting, and the speed of reading so fast, that by the time I really take in a good phrase and enjoy the beauty of it I have usually missed the next line completely. I soon find myself putting most of my energy into just trying to figure out what’s going on and ignoring the subleties and beauty of the poetics.
I admit that many listeners are quicker and more focussed than I am. But let me give you a specific example. At one of the Poetry London readings the editor of one of Canada’s premier poetry journals, highly esteemed for his own poetry, gave a reading. A workshop was held before the reading, as usual, examining two poems by us local poets, and two by the featured readers. This guy’s poem was amazing. It had a huge impact on me. I can remember parts of it to this day. So I was really looking forward to hearing him read it aloud. I thought I might get more out of it than I already had, by how he emphasized or deemphasized certain words. Well, even knowing the whole poem so intimately, from such a recent examination, most of it passed by me without any contact. I was shocked. And angry. I thought, how can he so casually do that to such an incredible poem? And that was only one of many he read. Imagine the incredible stuff I completely missed.
`The worst thing he did was read every poem with some kind of a weird, monotonous rhythm that broke up all the phrases and sentences into totally illogical pieces. It made them impossible to follow. I suppose he was trying to get the look of the poem on the printed page across to his listeners without actually showing it to them. He would have been much better served by using an overhead projector. A poem written on paper and a reading are two completely different art forms. A person can’t hear a visual form.
But reading a poem on paper, you can get both the form and the content at once. If you focus primarily on the content the look will still have its impact. And if one intrudes on the other too much, you can simply reread it. But none of this works at a reading. The only way to really communicate the poem is to ignore the look of it and concentrate on the content, the meaning, the phrases, the sentences. Then, if the poem is truly poetic, those poetics will to some extent make themselves felt in the normal reading of the sentences. In other words, the sentences will be different than if they had been written as prose.
But forgetting the look of the poem is only the beginning of communicating it. It only points the way. The reader has to really try to communicate, just as people talking to each other have to. Communicating largely involves empathy with the listener, imagining how the listener is taking everything that is spoken. If a word is spoken one way, will that lead the listener astray? Preventing misinterpretations is a very big problem in written poetry, and is part of the difficulty of both writing and reading a poem on the page, but to then read it aloud poorly is to compound the problem dramatically. And the listener has no time to think about meanings.
The listener has no time because the poem is usually read too quickly. Many impatient conversationalists speak far too quickly. They never seem to realize that even though they already know what they are going to say before they begin, the listener seldom does. The listener not only has to understand the words and the grammar but also must try to figure out the correct meaning at the same time.
The speaker only has to say the words. One requires more time than the other. Many good poets also seem to be ignorant of this lack on the part of their audience. And to grasp a poem takes much more than does grasping a simple conversation. Reading slowly is essential.
But few poets read with this kind of empathy for their audience. Reading each poem twice would make up for it, but that never happens. As a result, I often find myself giving up after the first few lines, shrugging my shoulders, and daydreaming through the rest of the poem.
Here’s my recipe for a good reading: The reader shouldn’t start out with the idea of trying to get across the complexities of the written poem, but instead should begin at the other end of the spectrum, as if the reading isn’t a reading but is actually just a conversation and the simple story in the poem is all that is important to get across. Then, with that, the reader can add more and more complexities from the written version until an optimal point is reached. Stop there. Beyond that, both content and poetics rapidly lose their stickiness until, at some point, the whole thing just bounces off the skull.