Sunday, 8 November 2015

The 4 Best Ways to Fuck-up Your Poetry Reading

Patrick Cotter, IMO the best arts administrator in Ireland (he's director of Munster Lit) is also a poet, writer and blogger. He has a brilliant new post on his blog for poets. His advice also applies to fiction writers. Below is the first bit, to whet your appetite. Go here for the rest.

1        Make like it's 1983

Strange to think it, but there are still poets out there who deliver their poems in a monotonous monotone. Most of them tend to be over fifty years of age. Last century (literally) it was de rigeur to give a poetry reading in a monotone – I guess it was a reaction against the way many actors can mangle a poem as they declaim it. Most poets hate the way most actors read poetry. Somebody wise once observed that most poets, when saying a poem aloud, do so by moving from consonant to consonant whereas most actors move from vowel to vowel. Jeremy Irons is a lovely man but he is the stereotypical example of an actor who knows how to destroy a poem, especially one by Yeats, by stretching out every vowel like a dog’s yowl. Anyhow last century the way most poets mitigated against this particular trauma was to put no feeling at all or variation of tone into the public reading of a poem. To inject feeling into a poem was believed to get between the audience and the poem; to impose an interpretation. It was believed by many that if you delivered a poem in a monotone the audience could concentrate specifically on the words and react in their own chosen way as they might by absorbing words straight off the page. 

Famously Paul Celan met with sneering disapproval when he read his poems in the traditional Eastern European shamanistic style (with feeling) to a group of German poets in Hamburg in 1952. One observer said Celan had sounded just like Goebbels, another said he sounded like he was singing in the synagogue. Amazingly, this attitude to reading poetry was not confined by the borders of Germany – it was fairly common throughout the English-speaking world too and was the most dominant reading style right up to the beginning of this century.

Slam and performance poetry shook the whole scene up – demonstrating how large audiences would react better to a bit of life in your voice as you declaimed your poem. Sadly there are still older poets who make it like it’s 1983 – often brilliant, insightful, exciting poets on the page who destroy their own reputations as soon as they open their mouths in a crowded auditorium – these days even frequent readers of poetry, even gifted, sophisticated younger ‘page’ poets no longer possess the ability to ‘read’ a poem aurally in a monotone. Monotone poets rarely receive repeat invitations to read and curators elsewhere get to hear how boring they sound and drop them from their thoughts too.

See points 2, 3 and 4 here.

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