Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Being Read Aloud

Do you write your work to be read aloud? I don't. I guess, as a poet, I should? Or at least be conscious of the fact that some people will be reading it aloud or expect that it will sound good when read aloud or expect that it will sound good when I read it aloud?

I'm not a sound poet or a a slam poet, clearly.

Of course I pay attention to meter, assonance, consonance, rhythm, etc when I'm writing a poem. I mean, it's poetry. The sound of it is booming in my head when I'm writing. I can feel how many syllables a line needs or the way the last word of the poem should sound, should resonate.

But, still. I write my poems for people to read them on the page. A reading aloud (at a reading event or in class or elsewhere) isn't my overall goal, isn't even part of my goal. Should I be more conscious of it? I don't know.

How about fiction writers? I know it's somewhat different. Fiction is often read in the same contexts that poetry is, but I don't feel like anyone expects it to "sound good" or "flow" or "be musical" in the way that people sometimes expect that of poetry. Do y'all even think about that when you're writing? Is it an issue, a point of concern?


  1. If it isn't your goal, it should be your goal to write poems (or at least fractions of poems) that are so 'fluid', 'musical', &c. that they are subconsciously memorized upon a second reading.

    Poetry is written to be repeated aloud.

  2. i'm interested in what you mean by "fractions" of poems. do you mean portions or sections of poems? how would having fractions of poems be more musical or fluid be a better poetic goal?

    i'll have to disagree with you...i think by writing the post i realized that i don't think that poetry MUST be written to be repeated aloud. in 2011, i hope we, as writers and poets, are free enough and smart enough and open-minded enough to acknowledge that poetry can have any goal and any purpose. the rules don't always apply anymore, do they?

  3. I don’t write my poetry to be read aloud. I have never read my poetry in public although I have read it to my wife and daughter, the odd one to save me having to pass around the folder. I don’t particularly enjoy going to poetry readings although I’ve nothing against hearing a poem read aloud. To qualify: at a reading you usually hear poems you’ve never heard before one after another – bam, bam, bam – and you’ve got no time to absorb one before you’re being assaulted by another (I chose my verb carefully). Poetry readings seem to go against everything I think of when I think of poetry. A poem is a thing to take time over. Who picks up a book of poems and reads from start to finish and then says, “Well, that’s me done. What’re we going to read now?” As a social thing I get why poets might want to associate and a reading is an excuse to do so but that’s it. I’m a big fan of the poet Philip Larkin. Larkin never read his poetry in front of an audience. His reasons?

    ‘Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the “score” that doesn’t “come to life” until it’s “performed.” It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.’ – Paris Review No.30

    Recordings are available of Larkin reading his own poetry and they are quite enjoyable – he had a wonderful lugubrious way about him – but even there he was very keen to point out that he was only showing how his poems could be read, not necessarily how they should be read. Not all poets read well. I don’t think I do but I did record a poem for a short film once.

  4. You all make good points, especially Larkin. In that quote toward the end, "the reader should "hear" it..."---agreed. In fact, I have trouble not hearing poetry aloud in my head as I scan the text. This may have been ingrained at a young age by teachers, who knows. I wonder how many others out there do this as well. My guess, many of us. That being the case, I think both diction and the cadence of language as the poet arranges words on a page is of great significance. Thoughts?

  5. Of course when we read a poem on a page and not aloud we don’t hear the sounds – there are no sounds to hear – but that doesn’t stop us imagining hearing the sounds and it’s generally our voice that does the speaking but I can think of at least one example where I read a book and I heard someone else’s voice, Laidlaw, by the Scottish writer William McIlvanney. McIlvanney has a distinctive west Scotland accent, not quite as aggressive as Glaswegian, plus I had him as an English teacher for one year so I was very familiar with his voice. When I read the dialogue it was his voice I ‘heard’ in my head.

    Even though I don’t write my poetry to be read aloud that doesn’t mean when it is read aloud it doesn’t work. To my mind it would be bad poetry if it couldn’t be spoken but as soon as someone else does the speaking it turns from a reading into an interpretion. I had one of my poems recorded recently by Nic Sebastian at Whale Sound – you can hear it here, it’s quite short – and there is nothing wrong with her reading apart from the fact that’s not how I imagined it read. Interestingly that was the same objection one of my friends made, that that was not the way he heard the poem in his head.

    There is, of course, the argument that a poem and a reading of that poem are two different things. You might find the article On Discreteness: Event and Sound in Poetry of interest in that regard. I suppose it’s analogous to a musical score and a performance of that score. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony exists as pure notation but there are people who can look at a score and ‘hear’ that music and what they ‘hear’ is something no one else has ever heard no matter how many recordings of the symphony they’ve heard. It’s like when I ‘hear’ the opening few bars in my head just now am I ‘hearing’ or remembering or am I constructing a sound out of all the versions I’ve ever heard?

  6. I actually don't hear my voice reading when I read to myself silently. What I do more than hear, I think, is feel the passage of air through my body and the movement of a mouth, an imagined mouth, which forms the words and breathes them without ever quite actually saying them.

    Of course I hear that with prose as well as poetry, and my prose is written by ear at least as much as my poetry, which I think is true of most decent prose writers today.

    One thing you notice reading prose more than poetry even, I think, is the way it manipulates your breathing. When you read an especially long sentence, or to a lesser extent a long paragraph, your chest tightens because you imagine you're running out of air -- because you've been reading it aloud internally, or at least breathing it. And in fact you probably actually breathe it to an extent. You alter your breathing as you read. Which is why I mostly structure my sentences and paragraphs for breath as much as or more than for sound. It's the most direct somatic effect you can have on a reader, in my experience.