Sound and Vision

Michael Symmons Roberts - 24 September 2007

Hello and welcome. This is the start of my virtual residency at the Poetry Archive, and I'm looking forward to our conversations. I thought I'd start this morning with a subject close to my (and the Poetry Archive's) heart. How important is the sound of a poem? How does that relate to its meaning? Is that sound & meaning only fully expressed by the poet's own voice? And where does all that leave the silent solitary reader and the words on a page? Can poetry readings diminish poems?

I've attended (as I'm sure many of you have) some remarkable poetry readings. When I was in my late teens, I heard Ted Hughes give a reading (as you can on this website) and it changed my sense of the pace, music and tone of his poems forever. His voice is in my head every time I read the poems on the page now, and I'm glad of that. Philip Larkin's deadpan delivery so fits the poems that it's hard (once you've heard it) to hear the poems any other way.

But this isn't always a good feeling. Sometimes after hearing a poet read, you're left wishing the poems were yours on the page again, to be read in your own voice in the privacy of your own head.

Take Robert Graves for instance. His poems have always intrigued me - beautifully made, steeped in history and myth, carried by a fluent lyric voice. But my sense of that 'voice' in Graves poetry changed utterly when I bought a tape of him reading. His voice is rich and resonant, but his accent is the problem. Have a listen on the Archive and see what you think.

It's an accent you never hear now, at least only in parodies by the likes of Harry Enfield. It's a very distinctive English establishment voice from the early 20th Century. And it gave me (as a reader and a fan of Graves) two problems.

The first is that hearing the voice dates the poems. Once you've heard the voice, they sound more like period pieces than they should. His poems (in my view) have travelled well down the years and many are beautiful and profound, but when I hear him read them it locates them so firmly in the past that I feel something is lost.

The second problem is that the sound of his voice changes the music of the poetry. There's been a lot of discussion about this in recent decades. Can we fully understand Keats or Wordsworth's music without 'hearing' it in their strong regional accents? Well, Graves' accent is just as strong, and it changes my sense of the music of his poetry. Sounds I'd heard as separate on the page are half or full rhymes in his voice, and vice versa.

I'm not making a political point about Graves' accent here. We don't choose our vowel sounds, they are part of our inheritance. But he spoke in an accent that now seems locked in the past, and that seems to me to be a problem.

Does it matter? Well, before I heard Robert Graves' voice I'd have to say I had a less accurate understanding of the poems. But the poems seemed better, richer, more contemporary without it. Should poetry readings come with a health warning? What do you think?


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Glossary term

Dramatic Monologue

A poem that shares many features with a speech from a play: one person speaks, and in that speech there are clues to his/her character, the character of the implied person or people that s/he is speaking to, the situation in which it is spoken and the story that has led to this situation.