Poetry Readings

Jo Shapcott - 31 May 2007

I've just been at the Hay Festival, listening to writers read from their work (and getting rained on in between sessions). It made me think back to readings I've been at in the past, and prompted two questions for the blog. First, what does the experience of listening to the poet read add to the poem (this relates to the archive as well as to live readings)? And second, what was the poetry reading that had the most impact on you? Don't forget, please feel free to raise any other questions you like as well, or even just thoughts about poetry that you'd like discussed.

My most memorable poetry reading would have to be hearing Ted Hughes many years ago in London. His voice and the energy he radiated left a powerful impression which comes back to me every time I read his poems. There are two recordings by Hughes in the archive: 'Pike' and 'February 17th'. Check them out and let us know what you think. From my point of view as a reader, these public events give me the chance to say the poems out loud in the way I hear them inside my head (if you see what I mean) so that I can communicate their music to the audience. Poetry readings also allow me to test drive new poems. It's sometimes startling how different they sound in front of an audience: I've binned more than one after doing this. Members of the audience are very good at coming up afterwards and saying what they think about poems, which is always revealing and usually helpful, if sometimes painful! But back to the questions at hand: what was your favourite poetry reading, and what's the point of them for you?


Poetry readings are usually extremely difficult and often, I feel, counter-productive. How on earth are you meant even to understand the basic argument or narrative when Paul Muldoon reads his poetry, let alone the richness of his verbal and phonic playfulness? Add to the complexity of his verse the soft and slightly inaudible reading voice he adopts. I also don't feel I have the application to appreciate most poetry readings: my mind wanders too easily. It may be a misconception, but I think that much of the poetry from the last hundred years has been written for the page. Lyric poetry has embraced reflexive games and oblique reference, demanding ever greater acuteness from readers. What little original narrative poetry is being written today - Walcott's epics, Glyn Maxwell etc - is far too dense to be considered still part of an oral tradition. Some friends and I sat up one night at university to read Paradise Lost aloud and in relay. It was perfectly comprehensible and enjoyable. We tried another night with Walcott's Omeros, which all of us greatly admire now that we have read it individually, and it was impossible: we gave up after Book 1. There are, of course, many poets whose work is well suited to being read aloud. Tony Harrison springs to mind. It's not an insult to say a Harrison couplet is thinner than a Walcott couplet, more easily apprehended. Perhaps it's also the use of genuine rhyme that helps the ear and brain sort out a poem that's read aloud - and there are fewer poets who employ full rhyme. For me it's very important to know where the line breaks are and I like poets to read them in; but then the form is often better understood at the expense of the sense. A final point I think might be worth making is that declamation is out of fashion. Tennyson and Browning are both on the Poetry Archive site and something (nothing to do with sense; something more numinous) is gained from the tenor and intensity of their voice, which you would not necessarily get from just reading the poems on the page. Not many people would get away with reading like that today. With the historical recordings on the archive there is a distance, an atmosphere and texture that crystallizes out of the otherworldy voice, the antique accent and the crackling white noise. There is definitely something amazing about hearing these disembodied voices. It's not the 'disembodied voice' in the sense of a voice coming out of nowhere, otherwise the same strangeness would be perceptible in recordings by contemporary poets. Maybe 'disembodied' in the sense that the voice survives but the body and the world have long gone.

It's interesting how a poem that sounds powerful inside your head can sound flat when you read the words aloud. That's probably down to the complexity of the processes of cognition: the idea that an inner voice speaks the words for an inner ear to appraise is too simple a model. An advantage and disadvantage of speaking a poem is that the author can clarify the meaning, by the inflections and emphases in his or her voice, where before there were x number of latent possibilities. Not that the author's reading of the poem should win out over that of other readers. And if one meaning was intended then it is the author's job to have closed down the ambiguities in the wording. I imagine it would be enjoyable to witness poetic personalities - Eliot's gravitas, Auden's dismissive arrogance, Empson's donnishness, Hughes's earthy intensity (?) - and surely poetry readings are about more than mere poetry! Frank O'Hara, say, might be much more entertaining at a reading than Robert Lowell, and yet on the page their respective values are reversed.

Sorry, those were three completely unrelated points that, for some reason, I am unable to separate into paragraphs. One more thing... favourite reading. I haven't actually been to many, so I don't really have one, but I'd be intrigued to see how Christopher Logue would read War Music. A question for Jo - who are your favourite poets, past and present, and what do you currently have on your bedside table?

William raises an important question here about the meaning of a line in a poem that's read out loud. And, yes, rhyme can tell the ear where lines end. But with free verse, where the play between line ending and syntax is all important, it's not so obvious. Readings which leave an exaggerated gap to show the end of a free verse line are not to my taste, not a solution at all. I take H's point about readings possibly clarifying a poem's meaning and the added interest of the poet's personality (or not!). H - some favourite poets would be Emily Dickenson, Chaucer, Elizabeth Bishop, Shakespeare (natch). On the bedside table is Borges' Labyrinths for a reread.

p.s. - What's everyone else reading?

Just passing through - would just like to say that for someone who writes poetry I don't attend that many readings. However, one recently that I thought was fantastic was at Royal Holloway Uni, where Jo herself read. Andrew Motion read a couple of new poems and one in particular, 'The Mower', was fantastic. What I noticed about Andrew's reading was how he placed equal stress on traditionally single stressed words such as 'garden' (usually just pronounced gard'n), which other languages like French do, but we're rather lazy at! This created a beautifully musical timbre, akin to the haunting tones of, say, Tennyson (in the archive). As for reading, I'm currently re-reading Tim Liardet's To The God of Rain. A much underrated poet.

So there you are, I wondered where everyone was! I am not sure where I missed a turning by the iron-eating tree, but I have been back waiting in the animal blog which has now been invaded by nonsense postings. Cheery Lois

I'm reading Tiepolo's Hound by Derek Walcott and Nabokov's Ada.

Reading Herodotus and RS Thomas at the moment. I'm also listening to a lot of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel. Brassens is as good a versifier as any. Has anyone been to a poetry reading in French? Is there much cross-over between contemporary poets in Britain and those on the continent? David Constantine and Derek Mahon have translated some French poets and Don Paterson translated Machado (not exactly contemporary), but I'm not aware of much else.

Robin Robertson's versions of poems by Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer, the collection The Deleted World, is not to be missed. Nature's entrance into the human landscape permeates Transtromer's poetry and Robertson conveys this carefully in his translations (and in my opinion with greater detail and atmosphere than Robert Fulton's versions which Robinson has been criticised for somewhat imitating) Moreover, Transtromer's poetry also seem to inform and shape that of Robertson's, his poems negotiating the collapse of the border between the human and the natural world often seen in Scandinavian poetry.

It was also the reading of Transtromer's poetry at last year's Poetry International which to me demonstrated the relevance of poetry readings: Transtromer began the reading by playing a piano arrangement with his left hand, (having been partly paralysed by a stroke), Robertson followed reading four of his English versions whilst an actor on behalf of Transtromer, read originals in the beautifully soft and melodic language that Swedish is - something one would certainly not experience on the page.
I consider poetry readings crucial in keeping the poetry scene alive - as a writer myself it really does reinforce its urgency and importance whilst encouraging a community within an often overlooked art.


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Glossary term


The process of marking the stresses in a poem, and working out the metre from the distribution of stresses.