Poet in residence

This term's poet in residence

Michael Symmons Roberts

and hello again... By Michael Symmons Roberts
10 Oct 2007 - 09:34 PM

Sorry for the faltering start. Apparently, just moments (well perhaps hours) after my first post as resident poet the site froze and has only today been unfrozen. I'm like to think this was just coincidence, but if it freezes again after this one I'll begin to take it personally. Ah well... What are you reading? I'm in the middle of the new(ish) biography of John Donne at the moment, and also reading some Auden and some Paul Muldoon.

My Auden reading is mainly preparation for teaching this time, but I'm always stunned by his work when I go back to it. Something about the apparent simplicity and the great complexity at the same time. And he takes all kinds of risks - telling readers what he thinks and believes (and sometimes what they should too), writing very tenderly about love, taking on big ideas in politics and theology. And all done with such formal brilliance. What do you make of him? He still provokes strong responses in readers for and against. And what are you reading? I was judging the Forward Prize this summer, and my fellow judge Sarah Crown (lit ed of Guardian unlimited) wrote about the great 'poetry binge' of reading for the judges. She said she loved reading so much poetry in such a concentrated way, but said she had a craving for a novel after a while. How do you read poems? Whole books or a poem at a time? Do you crave poetry after reading too much fiction?

17 Comments at the moment

Tracey B at 11 Oct 2007 - 03:19 PM

Hello! Why did I not know about this site? It is superb! It is quite a disgrace really being an English Teacher. Went on it last night after the seminar! I am really enjoying binging on poetry at the moment but am mixing it with reading a children's novel by Garth Nix. It is hard for me to concentrate on a novel whilst trying to read full books of poetry. This site is deadly...a bit like itunes...I get hooked in and then get lost.

Michael at 11 Oct 2007 - 06:58 PM

Hi Tracey, yes it is a fantastic site. Addictive too. What do you think about the readings you've heard? The strangest thing is to listen to a poet you've liked on the page, and find the poet's voice is not like the voice you've had in your head when you've been reading their poems. Can be quite unsettling, as I mentioned in an earlier post. Fascinating too though...

Phil B at 14 Oct 2007 - 03:02 PM

Hello! I'm a student currently on a gap year whilst reapplying to study English at university, and am finding this sight a welcome break from the usual revision for entrance exams, etc. The guided tours in particular are such a good way of introducing people to poets they'd never before have chosen to read (Charles Causley, for instance). Are you enjoying Muldoon, Michael? I discovered him this summer via his 'Horse Latitudes' and have his extended villanelle 'Soccer Moms' pinned on the wall besides me as I write - quite simply delicious. What I love about Auden is the sheer range and quantity of poetry he wrote, and so much of it of such high quality. Alongside 'Musee des Beaux Arts' and 'Lullaby', one also finds such gems as this limerick: T.S. Eliot is quite at a loss / When clubwomen bustle across / At literary teas, / Crying: --- 'What if you please, / Did you mean by The Mill on the Floss?' Brilliant.

Michael at 14 Oct 2007 - 08:38 PM

Hi Phil, glad to hear you are meeting new poems and poets on this site. And yes, some of the things I like and admire about Muldoon's work are there in Auden too. As you say, there's the sheer range and quality of the poems, but there's also (in both M and A) a desire to make poems that stick, poems you can't shake off once you've read them. Half the nation found that with Auden's 'Funeral Blues' a few years ago, after 'Four Weddings', but it's equally true of 'As I Walked Out One Evening', 'In Memory of WB Yeats' and the two you've mentioned. All this memorability and desire to communicate clearly, yet he still made poems so rich and deep that you find new twists each time you read them. Same could be said of Paul Muldoon, I think. And I agree, 'Soccer Moms' is a great poem.

Susannah at 15 Oct 2007 - 11:20 AM

Hello, I'm new to this message board and a bit nervous about putting my opinions forward since I am in no regard an expert. But thinking of your previous piece, Michael, about the sound of a poet's voice, I have been very profoundly effected by hearing the recordings on this site of the great american poet Sylvia Plath reading her poems, especially the one called the Applicant. Can you imagine a more highly charged delivery? The way she speaks the poem seems (although of course here we are in the realms of conjecture) to reflect the high adrenalin mood in which it was written. Hearing the recording I really feel I get a picture of her, dragging the painful poem up from somewhere deep inside her soul. I wonder are there other recordings on this wonderful site which have effected people in a similar way? And if a voice turns out to be flat or weak or disappointing in some other way, does that and spoil your appreciation of the poem or do you regard the voice and the delivery as superficial aspects and try very hard to overcome them and see the beauty and strength of the poem underneath? I am interested to hear some other points of view. Thank you for being here and talking with us on these topics, Michael. from Susannah Bledt.

Michael at 15 Oct 2007 - 11:44 PM

Hello Susannah, and thanks for your message. Inspired by your comments I had a listen to 'The Applicant'. I've heard Sylvia Plath's voice before, but not for a long time, and you're right that the reading of this poem is very powerful. Tricky to divide the reading from the poem though. When the words are so potent they can rise above the dullest reading. I agree that this has real intensity though. As for feeling disappointed by a poet's voice or delivery, well as I said in a previous post I was rather thrown by hearing Robert Graves read. Disappointed? Well, maybe, in that it made me hear the poems differently in my head, and I liked the way I was hearing them before.

ginnypig at 16 Oct 2007 - 09:33 AM

Hi I'm in my AS year in sunny Southamptom! Our brilliant English teacher Kate has taken us to several poetry readings and performances. Do you think poets have a responsibility to read or perform their poems, and to do so well? We did go and listen to one poet (I'd better not say her name) who didn't know how to use the mike and she mumbled her way through them all in a really boring monotone, it totally put some people off for life.I just5 don't see the point in doing readings at all if you can't put some life into it. Are there any poets who refuse to do readings, and does it damage their popularity?

Michael at 17 Oct 2007 - 09:40 AM

Hi Ginnypig - good name, and good to hear from you. I agree with you. Or at least, half agree. I don't think that poets have a responsibility to read or perform their poems. There are poets who write for the stage more than the page, and clearly for them the performance is a key element right from the start. But there are many others who write primarily for the page, and give readings because it's part of process of getting the poems out into the world. I can think of poets who are reluctant performers, but I can't at the moment think of any who never read. Will give that more thought. I do agree with you that if poets do perform their poems they have a responsibility to do it as well as they possibly can. Most poets now do take the performance aspect very seriously, and many are excellent at it. I have, once or twice, heard a poet throw away their poems at a reading, but just turning up with the books isn't enough. Readings are now, more than ever, an important part of a poet's work, and I'm glad about that. I like giving readings, and I like hearing other poets read too. Many are brilliant readers, and to name a few means missing many, but Paul Farley, Mark Doty and Sharon Olds are fine readers of their own work.

Rebecca at 17 Oct 2007 - 10:02 AM

Hi I'm a poet and actor, currently doing an MA in Voice Studies at Central Sch. of Speech and Drama: training as a voice teacher. I am also very interested in the way poets 'permumble' (did I just invent a word??) their work, and am hoping to work with writers to help them steer the true message of their work across, which after all is what poetry is all about isn't it, meaning communication... For me, the best performer of poetry was the late great Michael Donaghy. The last time I heard him read was at the big Apples and Snakes event at the QE Hall in 2003 and Michael did 'Black Ice and Rain' from his book Conjure. You could hear a pin drop! Spellbinding.

Michael at 17 Oct 2007 - 10:21 AM

Rebecca, hi, thanks for joining us. Interesting idea for a trained voice teacher to work with poets to sharpen the way they communicate at readings. Is anyone doing that already? Or will you be the first? Agree with you about the late great Michael too. He was an astonishing poet and performer. The first time I read with him I'd just published my first book and hadn't thought that much about readings. Michael followed my rather low-key effort by reading entirely from memory with a performance that captivated the audience. Hmm, I remember thinking, I'd better work a bit harder at this reading thing...

rebecca at 17 Oct 2007 - 01:43 PM

Hi Michael yes, MD was definitely an inspirational poet and teacher (how I came to know him). I don't know if I will be the first voice teacher to work with poets in the way I envisage: although I'm sure I wouldn't be the first to wish for it... I am looking at ways of getting it off the ground in the coming months so if you have any thoughts or suggestions perhaps you might be able to email me, or keep this thread going...? thanks michael! Rebecca

Michael at 17 Oct 2007 - 01:56 PM

Rebecca, yes, happy to keep this thread going and see what others think of the idea. I know some poets have had voice coaching for readings, but I haven't heard of a teacher specifically tailoring this to poets and poetry readings. If anyone has, then let us know!

ginnypig at 23 Oct 2007 - 10:13 AM

Well, you can tell I must be a bit of a geek, it's half term and I'm still talking about poetry!! Our English teacher has taken us to 3 poetry readings, one of them was last year and it was a humungus event with Simon Armitage, Gillian Clark, Carol Anne Duffy and I think two others but I can't remember. There were about 300 teenagers in the audience and it was amazing, more like a rock concert than a poetry reading. It made me think ah, poets can be performers, they can make you get goosebumps. I can still remember one of Simon Armitage's poems, the one called "The Shout". But perhaps some poets are not such extraverts. I'll look out for the ones you mention, especially Sharon Olds because I don't get to hear enough female poets, so if anyone can recommend some more I'd be grateful. thanx

Judith at 24 Oct 2007 - 01:03 PM

Hi Ginnypig. If you want to hear great women poets, I can recommend a few on this site. I would say try the Canadian poet Margaret Atwood to begin with. Then Elaine Feinstein - her later work is especially powerful. Kathleen Jamie is wonderfully skilled and observant in writing about the natural world, and delivers her words in a rich, musical scots accent. And another scot, Jackie Kay, can make me laugh and cry in the same poem! Michael, are there any women poets whose work has been influential for you or who you think are especially important now?

Michael at 24 Oct 2007 - 01:40 PM

Ginnypig and Judith, well yes, where do I start? So many to choose from... Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop would be three important names from the past for me. All three open up worlds of possibility for writers and readers of poetry. Then more recently yes those mentioned by both of you would be on my list, as would Jorie Graham, Lavinia Greenlaw and Alice Oswald, to name just three. All are very compelling readers. I could name many more.

Moscow_C at 24 Oct 2007 - 07:33 PM

Hello Michael - I saw a link to these postings after listening to your recordings this morning. (I found my way back again through the 'For students' section on the website - is this just for students?). I wanted to read about what you had to say as poet-in-residence partly because I liked the way you read your poems. Very non-performance, very much letting the words speak as much as they can for themselves, which is the way I like to hear poets read. In general, I don't really like the idea of poets being trained to read their poems, but I guess some basic pointers could help in some cases. It's such a personal thing, reading your poems, don't you find? Or are you distanced from them? Would you be willing to take pointers on how to best to express your own poems? I think it should be least like a performance as possible. I have spent a lot of time in Russia. Poets there have traditionally read their poems in a very rhythm-accented, almost chant-like way. I think that's a lot to do with the sound of the Russian language. The language allows this. One poet I am reading a lot of at the moment is Olga Sedakova - she reads from memory, it's quite mesmerising to watch and listen to. As for other things I'm reading: Seamus Heaney, Eliot's critical writing, various poetry journals and some Canadian short stories (with short bursts of random browsings through Wikipedia). As for how I read poetry - rarely in the right order it seems, random is again the word. I try to read short collections in the given order, but I sometimes get pulled ahead by an interesting title. I read Alice Oswald's Dart and also Woods etc. in the 'right order' (Dart of course could hardly be read in any other way). I think it's important to try to read a collection in the way it's set out; this is something I want to work on, labour on. Reading poetry is most definitely a labour of a kind. One more thought: it seems that the further back in time a collection was written, the greater the temptation to read it randomly, perhaps because with time some of the poems grow to overshadow others. Do any collections spring to mind that you feel should most definitely be read in the given order?

Michael at 26 Oct 2007 - 09:53 AM

Hello Moscow_C, and thanks for your comments. Lots of threads to pick up there. In answer to the question about giving readings, and your sense of possible dangers in poets being trained to read their poems. I know what you mean, and I wouldn't want to be taught where to put the emphasis in one of my own lines, for example, but if that training is more about basic performance skills - voice projection, connecting with an audience, etc, then it could be useful. I've heard some readings in Russian, and can recognise that 'rhythm-accented, chant-like' reading. I'm sure you're right that the language lends itself to that, but I have heard (every now and then) British or American poets read in very strong chant-like pattern -trying to think of examples - well, Mark Doty approaches it, and the English poet Jeremy Reed. As for how to read a collection (dip in or read cover to cover), I think it depends on the book. If it seems 'through-composed' or loosely narrative driven like 'Dart' or Hughes's 'Birthday Letters' then I'll usually read front to back like a novel. If it's not, I'll often flick forwards and backwards in a collection, reading all the poems but (to paraphrase Eric Morecambe) not necessarily in the right order.

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