I’ve found a perfect opportunity to contrast the two styles of poetry recitation we have been talking about. This opportunity consists of finding a poem, ‘The Road Not Taken,’ (Robert Frost, of course) of which several readings are available on youtube.
The opportunity further consists of two really interesting facts.
1.) The video which represents the type of reading I do NOT prefer, is a skillful and attractive example of its kind. Meanwhile, the video which represent the type of reading I DO prefer, is not the best example of its kind. Can the superiority of the bard-like-style make itself felt even under these adverse conditions?
2.) Even though I feel there are flaws in the reading style of the second video, it is, nevertheless, a video of an acclaimed poet reading his own work. This is Robert Frost reading Robert Frost; a reading could hardly be more authoritative.
Frost’s style of recitation no doubt reflects his education. Robert Frost had a classical education – one which included traditional training in both literature and elocution. He learned to write poetry by mimicking the meter of the Greek and Latin poetry he had studied in high school, reproducing it with American colloquial speech patterns. Although Frost eventually became faculty at several colleges, he himself didn’t finish college. And yet, he was not un-academic: he had been co-valedictorian of his high school class (sharing the honors with his future wife, Elinor.) What we have then is a man and a poet of “the old school,” who persisted and gained honors in a new literary world that, nevertheless, was never really his world.
Here he reads in the epic style. The dying fall we often hear at the end of the line seems to me expressive of nothing other than, “I am currently reading a poem.” I don’t care for it. But the sing-song, the emphasis, the strong utterance, is unmistakable in style. Do you think his accent is interesting? Despite the fact that we often associate Robert Frost with New England, he grew up in California and lived for a long time in England.
Robert Frost is known for having written in a sort of melancholy faux-colloquial, so you could read any of his poems as an actor’s soliloquy if you were inclined to. It lends itself to the style of reading I am not recommending, as much as any style of poetry out there.
Here John C. Caitlin does a beautiful, impressional reading of our poem. It’s pretty intense and introspective, and will not fail to impress any hearer, I feel. The poem here is not so much recited as interpreted.
Thinking about this, I conclude it’s no wonder that contemporary poetic criticism is always talking about “the persona” of the poem. That person is, for us, really there – someone who stands between the author and the audience, having feelings and thoughts that the author didn’t indicated. He was, perhaps, created by modern methods of recitation. He is a new kind of response to a work of literature, one in which the reader abandons his role of receiving the poem and having a felt response to it, and tries, instead, to participate in the authority of the poet by adding his own layer of finishing content. He “interprets” the poem instead of speaking or hearing the poem. Thus, the persona is the projection of the reader’s vainglorious participation, not in the poem, but in the act of creating the poem. The modern reader refuses to respond, to receive. He wants instead to appropriate.
Perhaps some of the difference between modern poetry and older poetry is the fact that the modern poet now also sees a persona, an unreal intermediate interpreter, between himself and his reader. The modern poet has grown timid. He knows that his will not be the final word of his poem. A ghostly persona, the projection of the reader’s luciferic literary arrogance, will do with it what he will.
I imagine that any reader will now not be surprised when I sat that, despite the emotional attractiveness of the modern style, I’m more strongly endeared than ever, this day, to the manly, forthright, ringing, bardic style of recitation. Here, the poem is a physical thing, and expressive rather than an impressive thing. With traditional poetry read in a traditional style, the feeling, the response, is what I, the audiator, bring to the poem rather than something I expect the poem to bring to me. Here, the poem has an opportunity to be light, and the reader, an eye. Here, the poet’s workmanship and I interact directly.
By contrast, in the modern style the poem is merely a script for a performance, whether internal or external. I, the auditor, am a passive patient, lying open on the operation table, while the recitator (or the persona in my mind) like a surgeon, inserts some foreign heart into my chest. To me this is not life-giving but rather redundant, for I do not lack a healthy heart of my own with which to beat in time to the poem’s meter.
Give me that vibrating, throbbing, pulse – and I will come alive.
In short, I do not think that a poem, if it is really a poem, is an occasion for pathos, for catharsis. Stage plays and movies have that function. It is a function that I don’t disapprove of, but one which I am wary about. A person whose whole mental appetite is fixed on that cathartic, pathetic action of which a drama is the proper source, is a person who will gradually lose the ability to actively feel. He will feel everything passively, helplessly, and vicariously.
A poem is another thing: a thing which gives us as readers a chance to practice active, deliberate feeling. To refer to another of our favorite subjects, in the natural relationship between literature and audience, the poem requires a masculine response. In stage plays and movies, the drama requires a feminine response.