More On Poetry Recitation

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.

20 thoughts on “More On Poetry Recitation

  1. What is remarkable about Frost reciting his poetry is that regardless of what else he may do with his voice, he never does violence to the basic meter of his poem.

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    • OK, now consider another perspective: the poem’s internal voice.

      I don’t think a person who is writing a poem is speaking the same way he would if hle were actually talking, whether to friends, say, or to a lover, or even to God. He’s not exactly “speaking” at all – more like eliciting a voice both from far away (the place where we look to find universal meanings) and from deep inside.That voice, which eventually resides in the poem itself if it is truly a poem, some people call the personna.

      Now here’s where we may differ. If the personna (universal voice particular to the context of the poem) is in the poem itself and not an intermediary brought from outside, a reader has to listen for it, find it, then reproduce it in his head. But not only there; in his heart too. If possible (and this depends on how good the poem is) in his soul. I know that “soul” is somewhat illusive, and that “heart” usually refers to emotions only. But eventually the experience of a poem has to include these mysterious elements. When it does, a sensitive reader will “hear” the poet’s voice and experience it’s rhythms, intonations, and tone(s).

      So reading a poem, whether in front of an audience or microphone, into an empty room, or just inside one’s head, requires reading it many times – just as playing a piece of music well requires much study, practice, and run-throughing .

      Regarding the difference between metered poems and more freely rhythmic ones, I believe that both will give up their musical voice to a patient sensitive reader,. As I hear it, Mr Caitlin missed this voice. Thus he is is not reading Frost’ poem, but rather he is dramatizing a version of the poem that he has created from Frost’ words. The poet himself, on the other hand, is allowing the unique combination of words & phrases in the poem to speak, chant, or just stand for themselves, and doing this he makes it clear that this was not just a one-time event that may or may not have changed his life, but rather a language-art work that encompasses (speaks for?) all of humanity. But with that, he also allows just enough of a real voice, the sound of a person thinking out loud, expressing with spontaneous natural pauses and inflections what the experience of remembering in order to understand is- he allows a personal, intimate tone to influence the reading in such a way that it is not a performance, not a prayer-like secular chant, not an imitation of a self-conscious poet trying to sound as if what he’s saying is magical, incantatory, hypnotic. . .

      (Uh-Oh, afraid I got carried away by my own voice. Don’t mean to lecture. More like trying to keep up in a good conversation.)

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      • I definitely agree with the second half of your comment, Albert. I think that’s insightful.

        As for the first half, I had to think about it, but this doesn’t seem to correspond to anything that I experience when I am writing poetry. I don’t think that as a poet I am the instrument of some universal voice. I think that if the body human has a universal voice, it is probably something like a grunt!

        It’s true that there’s a difference between conversational speech and formalized language-art. But consider this. When we are babies we say a word or two at a time and get our meaning across. Part of gaining greater skill in language is the ability to put words together in a sentence – that is, to formalize them, to compose linguistic structures of greater density and complexity.

        In Elizabethan times, people had far more facility with language than we do now. I once read a transcript someone had written, reproducing a conversation that occurred one evening between several men visiting in one of their homes. The length, complexity, and formality of their sentences were astounding – and one must take into account that in remembering a conversation one tends to simplify.

        So, I do think that the act of writing a poem and the act of composing a sentence are connected – are basically the same sort of thing. And yet composing a sentence is something we do conversationally – and if we were better educated, we would find that human beings are capable of producing sentences, conversationally, that would qualify as poems by current standards!

        I think consideration of this fact breaks down any supposed hard division between conversational language and poetic language. I believe the difference between the two is largely one of purpose. Secondarily, you have the difference that a poem has become permanent, while the conversational sentence might very well be forgotten. I don’t believe that the poet (or any other kind of artist, for that matter) is doing something that is wholly esoteric. Treating artists as if they were doing something really esoteric is surely part of the reason that modern art is so singularly insolent. (How else can artists continue to believe themselves set apart, priests of the universal, when they see that as soon as they create art, all the ordinary people follow their example and quickly do the same? Being rude is literally the last refuge of the esoterist.)

        So, I do not agree that in a poem, the poet is not directly speaking to the reader. When I write a poem, I certainly am speaking to my reader. That I am speaking formally, and rendering my speech permanent, and perhaps removing the matter away from the exact details of my personal life, does not change its basic nature as speech.

        I sometimes wish everyone spoke to one another in poems on a daily basis. Not only that, but I believe that if we were educated to that purpose, we would be just as capable of speaking in poetry as we are now of speaking in sentences, and it would seem just as natural.

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        • Certainly as an actor in verse plays the aim is to make the language conversational without loosing the meter or the rhyme. That requires focus, energy and a precision knowledge of what one is communicating.

          The same applies when reading anything aloud.

          But such speech has a heightened reality about it that rarely occurs in everyday conversation. I’m in the insurance business. Not much poetic there I’m afraid.

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          • Yes, technical details and business transactions are certainly among the least likely situations for providing subject matter for poetry.

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        • But Alana, how could we ever get through the day if “. . . everyone spoke to one another in poems” routinely? How could we have a conversation? I mean, poetry is so compact, so intense, so dependent on sensory appeal.

          So I’m thinking that you are just asking for more care with words, unless what you mean is: wouldn’t it be great if we allowed ourselves true freedom of speech as well as of emotion, listening for layers of meaning while the other is speaking, not Interrupting or challenging but responding either with respectful silence or with. . . I don’t know, how does one respond to a poem outwardly?

          We certainly wouldn’t waste words, would we. Maybe that’s the real meaning behind Ephrem’s prayer, where he asks to be delivered of (from?) the spirit of idle talk.

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          • Albert, I don’t think WE could – we ourselves, as we are. The reason is because we were not cultivated and educated in the necessary manner.

            But I think we – human beings – could talk that way if we were cultivated and raised in the necessary manner. I think the Elizabethans proved that.

            Some poetry is compact, dense, and dependent on sensory appeal. On the other hand, some is diffuse, (The Fairy Queen by Spencer) expository (Roman de la Rose) and metaphysical (the sonnets of John Donne.)

            So, I am not making an appeal to action of any kind. I am making an argument, a thought experiment. It seems plain to me that many people around me believe that artistic form is unnatural, simply because they don’t engage in it spontaneously. That leaves us asking the question, however, “if poetic form does not define what poetry is, than what DOES define what poetry is?” And having rejected the outward shape as non-essential, we are left looking for something “in” the poem instead. Most moderns reject subject matter as having anything to do with whether a composition is a poem or not. What is left?

            Early in the 20th, there were a lot of “schools of poetry” addressing this problem, and most of them tried to solve it based on method of composition. So you had Ezra Pound and the imagists, who said that the essence of a poem is (basically) word-pictures. And you had T.S. Elliot who said that it was “finding the objective correlative.” Ultimately, these guys all contradicted one another. And yet many of their works, based on competing and contradictory methods of composition, were inducted into the cannon of “great literature.” So that debunked the theory that the essence of poetry is its method of composition.

            So all that is left is voice. We are left to speculate that the voice of the poet is not really his own voice (which would be the obvious conclusion) and that it must come, instead from somewhere far away, somewhere other people can’t reach, and that speaking in this voice makes him a poet and his compositions poetry.

            But what if the problem were removed in the first place? What if it turned out, as Bradley said, that form and content are inseparable, and that therefore form is indeed essential to poetry? Well, that would certainly remove our problem, but hasn’t that already been debunked?

            I don’t think it has. To my mind, the spontaneity with which we engage in the composition of sentences demonstrates that form IS natural, and argues that there is another reason for our lack of comfort with formal poetry.

            My definition of a poem is “A composition composed of words.”

            But we must understand ‘words’ in their tendentious, pattern-forming, mentally extensive fullness, and not words used as terms, or as servants to some other compositional element. And, I think the voice of the poet is simply the phenomenon of a person linking up those aspects of his mental action which are often used one at a time or shut down or ignored. Intuition, logic, feeling, memory, projection, narrative, all or many or more these activities must be used in concert. It may be, and probably is, that other person help us to compose, at times, by extending their thoughts and feelings to us through the ontological connection we all have. (I’m convinced that King David once helped me write a Christmas carol.) But that is still a far cry from “Universal,” isn’t it? Universal is a pretty big word, and if it were true it would bring with it the problem, among others, that the distinction between good people and bad people would be flattened and therefore, in a poem, we could only say what is common to everyone, that is to say, not much.

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        • This (litkicks) is a terrific site! I’m going back often. Thanks for sending me there! And I do understand better.

          I especially liked this: “Basho also was one of the earliest proponents of spontaneous prose. He believed in and preached the concept of Shasei (on-the-spot composition and tracing the subject to its origin).” [made me think of your idea of speaking in poetry]

          As did this follow-up: “. . . a contemporary school of haiku, Tenro, is popular all over Japan. It includes some two thousand members all over the country who meet at designated temples to write as many one hundred haiku a day. The goal is to attempt to enter objects and share the ‘delicate life and feelings.’ ”

          I’d like to try something like that. Maybe I’ll propose it to my poker group as an alternative to creating fictions” through bluffing (found on another great posting at this site – a little book of essays that he wrote about the connection between literature & poker!)

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          • It does sound fun!

            The fact that poetry is not inherently written, but can also be composed in speech, even in interactive speech, seems to imply something important about its nature.

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          • Sounds fun! Yes, the reason I linked to it was for the very reason you mentioned, because it demonstrates that people who cultivate the skill do speak spontaneously in poetry, although it seems that it tends to be pretty colloquial.

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  2. A fragment of thought: having been on both sides of the footlights, so to speak, the best performances happen when there is a dynamic and palpable interchange between the actors and the audience–each building on the other. Comedy, drama, classics or modern. That living exchange is what makes live theater different than movies or TV.

    I’m having difficulty understanding your masculine/feminine approach here.

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    • Yes, the comments on that subject were problematic as original written. I did change them.

      What I ended up saying is simply that poetry requires an active (masculine) response – because it cannot be experienced except in a manner in which the reader acts upon the poem. I know you and I have disagreed before over the designation of masculine as active and feminine as passive, but that is what I am referring to here.

      What I am implying, then, is that a play and a poem (considered abstractly) are different things and must therefore be spoken differently. In reality, of course, the two forms sometimes combine or coincide. But considered abstractly, the play is essentially composed of drama, or dramatic situations, and the words serve the drama. However the poem is essentially composed of words and the words serve only themselves (in their wet human significant pattern-forming fullness.)

      So I am saying that drama is masculine and requires a feminine response. Poetry is feminine and requires a masculine response.

      The feminine response required by drama is provided by the audience. The actor is not part of the audience – he embodies the drama. He is essentially active; he “plows” the feelings of the audience. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the reciter of poetry to try and do this to his audience. I think the attempt to feminize the audience of the poetry in this manner, confuses the energies and leaves a dullness in the soul.

      The masculine response required by poetry is provided, I think, by both the audience and the recitator. Both are “plowing” and “harvesting” the rich fertile material of the poem, originally laid there by the poet. Thus, the bard may be very excited and expressive, but he won’t be pathetic. The actor on the other hand, must bring out lots of pathos for the audience to feel.

      Thus, though they seem alike at first, the bard reciting the poem is not doing the same thing as the actor portraying the drama and therefore should not use the same techniques.

      Perhaps a really good example is Ian McKellen’s performance as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies. Most of the time he is expressive, dramatic, and conversational. But when he utters a spell or a word of poetry, how his voice changes! He is dramatically portraying the recitator of poetry at that moment!

      “YOU (beat) SHALL not (beat) PASS!”

      I admit I’m somewhat uncertain about all this. I’m working on/playing with these ideas.

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      • I liked Frost’s version much better than the second one! With the tinkling piano and the voice dripping with feeling, it sounded like he was leading up to an altar call. 😉 I was surprised that you liked the Frost version so much, though, because I would have thought from your other post that you would have found it too “flat”, however I’m now seeing (sorry if I’m dense) that your complaint is of a flattening out the meter (esp in poetry that begs to be read otherwise) rather than a limited range of emotional expression.

        “the reader’s luciferic literary arrogance,”
        awesome phrase, lol

        I enjoyed this post.

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        • “…leading up to an altar call.” That’s hilarious, I didn’t think of it but it’s true.

          No, you’re not dense, my views have evolved through the conversation. My original complaint was not of two different professional styles, but of an amateurish diction in which every line is the same smooth slide toward a soft melancholy fall at the end of the line. No considered difference in volume, in pitch, in emphasis between words; just conversational diction. I encountered this in a poetry reading group a few years ago, for instance.

          But surprise, surprise: when I was on youtube looking for poetry reading to post on the blog (to illustrate my point that poetry is easier to appreciate with context) I couldn’t help but notice how many professional actors were reading poetry in this amateurish way, as if they didn’t know what to do when they couldn’t pretend they were someone else talking to someone else.

          In the course of the conversation this turned into a discussion of two professional styles of recitation and of the fact that the technique of an actor is properly different than that of a reciter of poetry.

          I’m glad you liked that ‘luciferic’ line – I was nervous someone might take it as a moral judgment rather than a literary allusion.

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        • Here’s an example of what I was originally complaining about… you only need to watch about ten or fifteen seconds of it to get the idea. It kind of makes sense that someone might use this style to recite poetry that is nothing more than recorded conversation anyhow. (Although, why make it more boring than it needs to be?) But when metrical poetry or other formal types get the same treatment it drives me crazy.

          Here’s the video.

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      • AR, I don’t disagree with your use of the word passive. I just had a different context for it.

        However, some of the less than smooth communication on this topic is, in part, because you are female and have an inner understanding of what it means to be female that I cannot have. On the other side, I have an inner understanding of what it means to be male that you don’t have. We look through different lenses.

        I have always seen Gandalf’s “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” as a deeply noetic, male command not only against the Balrog, but against evil, part of the word of truth. I dare say the female version would be just as effective, but come out quite differently. I have no idea what it would look like.

        I’ve never seen poetry as a command, noetic certainly, put more exploratory in a sense of the fit between the deepest human parts of us and the outside.

        But, I certainly could be wrong. What am I missing?

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        • No, I agree that Gandalf’s enacting the word of power is completely masculine in the context of the story.

          On the other hand, Ian McKellen does something completely different with it as a line than he does with, say, the dialogue between Gandalf and Frodo a few movie-minutes earlier, where they discuss Bilbo’s mercy.

          Mind you, this masculine/feminine designation of drama/poetry can only go so far, but I would say that McKellen’s masculine response to the poetry contained in the script was correct and profound.

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        • No, I didn’t think you were disagreeing with my use of the word ‘passive.’ I was just trying to discuss the word more fully.

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