Aloud and Proud

by Sonia Mitchell

Sonia likes spoken poetry (and brackets).
Before I start, I should probably clarify that I'm not an expert by any means on the contemporary poetry scene. I read a bit, but not as much as I should, and my opinions are those of an interested spectator/listener rather than any kind of authority. However I have been having some thoughts about poetry that's spoken aloud, prompted in part by my attendance at a couple of Hammer & Tongue poetry slams in Oxford.

Oh, and my unauthoritative ramblings are also quite long.

One of the things I like most about poetry that's written specifically to be spoken is the refocus on the actual language and the way it's used. I do like a good meaningful poem, but I think there's a trend in contemporary poetry to privilege meaning over language to a degree I find a little wearing. I'm not trying to be a reactionary claiming that poetry these days is no good because it doesn't rhyme - obviously plenty does rhyme, and plenty of non-rhyming verse is both a) very good and b) centuries old. But I think some poets neglect the mechanics of how poetry works, and writing poems with the aim of performing them naturally seems to promote an greater awareness of how they sound rather than just how the words look when arranged on the page.

It maybe seems a bit amusing these days to think of the Romantics reading poetry in their drawing rooms, but it appears to have worked - an awareness that one's work was likely to be read aloud seems to shine through a lot of the poetry of the period. I'm a Coleridge fangirl so I'll use 'Kubla Khan' as my example, which works on an aural level even if (/when) the listener loses the thread of meaning. Good readings (in my completely subjective opinion) seem thin on the ground, but this collection of extracts amuses me for the enthusiasm of the reader and at least doesn't do the slooooowww poetry voice that kills the poem. Oh! that deep romantic chasm indeed.

Out loud the tricks Coleridge uses come too fast and from too many directions for a reader like me to identify them all - he throws internal rhymes, breaks in metre, alliteration and anything else he can find at the poem - but the effect is actually a real unity. Words link across line breaks, lines connect across stanzas, and the language pulls the poem together in ways I don't think you'd fully realise when reading the poem on the page (even if you carefully underline all the techniques you can find).The 'twice five miles' of line six could as easily be 'ten miles' if one considers meaning alone, but then you'd lose the assonance on the long i that pulls the phrase together and you'd have to find an extra word to make the metre work. 'Ten long miles', perhaps... it's not an improvement. The sense of the words alone isn't enough - it's the way Coleridge uses them that makes the poem so unique, and it's hearing them aloud that showcases the range of techniques he favours.

The natural impulse when reading silently is to search for meaning, clumping sections together based on which bits make sense. The beauty of listening to someone else's reading is that (unless you're cheating and clicking pause) you can't stop to puzzle over what the first bit meant before tackling the second. Hearing separate stanzas and sections as a continuous whole is actually really rewarding, even if the trade-off is a loss of meaning. In that way - and I'm by no means the first to observe this - spoken poetry has a lot in common with songs. We've all misheard lyrics, but the fact that I mentally sing 'we're gonna rock down to, Scalectrix avenue' has never hampered my enjoyment of the song that's apparently about 'Electric Avenue'. Likewise, getting lost in a poem doesn't stop the listener experiencing the way it sounds, whereas on the page I, at least, tend to give up when I realise I don't know what's going on. There's very little reward to reading a poem you just don't get, but there's plenty if you listen to the same poem.

Which brings me round to Hammer & Tongue, who hold a monthly poetry slam upstairs at Baby Simple on Cowley Road, Oxford. Outside of the annual finals the mike is open, with prospective poets signing up for a spot on the night. With five members of the audience appointed judges, each poet performs for about three minutes. Steve Larkin comperes, warming up the crowd, encouraging the acts and generally keeping some sort of order. He's not really my type of presenter, having an unfortunate tendency to pick on members of the audience for laughs and to keep control. I'd say he stays the right side of the line, but it's sometimes a close run thing and he makes me a tad nervous. However he's definitely a talented performer - he apparently won the International Spoken Word Olympics in 2004 - and his commitment to the event is undeniable.

The venue itself is nice but squished. If you do by some chance end up going I'd advise you not to drink too much too soon. Visits to the bathroom outside of the break are rendered pretty much impossible due to everyone sitting on every available bit of surface in a huddle of people. Fortunately the organisers do at least take pity and have a decent length interval. It's not an uncomfortable place, either, and the cosy atmosphere definitely adds to the camaraderie of the night. You'd be brave to go against the prevailing mood and heckle the acts when eighteen separate people are within easy prodding distance of you.

The crassness of judging people's poetry with a numerical score is frequently acknowledged, but at the same time it provides that element of competition that drives the event. While it produces an inevitable trends towards funny crowd-pleasing poems, a pleasing variety get through and few that I've heard so far have descended into blatant cliche (there was one about how hard it is to get laid if you're a feminine-looking lesbian which seemed to rely on the shock value of saying 'pussy' with relish, but I count that as a one-off aberration. The same poet also provided an extremely good serious examination of the impact of the Omagh bomb on her own life). Subjects range widely, though as they're playing to a largely student crowd the poets (though mostly not students themselves) no doubt tailor their material to fit.

As with the rest of this article, however, I'm more interested here in the way the poets use language, which is frequently very good. While you'll see a whole range of styles I tend to be particularly impressed by the way a lot of the poets use rhyme and half-rhyme (okay, maybe I actually am one of those reactionaries who complains that modern poems don't rhyme....), which is often anarchic and unconfined to the end of the lines. Internal rhyme is a powerful tool when used deliberately, and though we can't all be Edgar Allen Poe it's still great to hear someone tripping through a line full of chiming sounds. Tongues are often pushed into cheeks, too, with childishly amusing tricks like setting up a rhyme to be a swear word before veering off in another direction being used to decent effect. I get the impression that the writers care about the words they use as well as the message they're trying to communicate, and it's enhanced simply by hearing the poet say their words close to how they sound in his or her head.

And, of course, the actual performing skills of the poet are very important. I do wish some people would learn not to shout into a microphone - actually, mike or not, I'd rather they didn't shout at all - but otherwise I enjoy the performance aspect. At one end of the scale there are the poets who favour clear enunciation, and they're countered by those who display frankly amazing skills at rattling off their poems at high speed. The latter create something of a wall of sound, difficult to keep up with but rather hypnotic. Typically I find myself snatching phrases, catching up the thread of the poem and then losing it again. And yet it works, because it's an aural experience, and part of the pleasure is hearing words cascade after each other, complimenting, rhyming, creating a comic discord... anything the poet chooses. And meaning filters through, even if I can't understand every word.

Moving away from Hammer and Tongue and back into the world of The Establishment, Simon Armitage sits towards this end of the spectrum. I was a bit indifferent to his work until I had the chance to hear him read, which really helped me appreciate some of the things he does with language. Though his poetry voice is quite monotone, it works in his favour, chiming words very hard. There's a video of him reading here - the sound quality isn't great but once he starts reading you can hear the effect he creates as he threatens to sweep the listener past the meaning. I find it quite an effort to keep up with him when he's stacking the words up, ending up with a heap of broken images mish-mash of ideas to draw meaning from. Also he's actually quite a funny man, which always helps.

Which is not to claim that the poet is the sole arbiter of how their work should be read. A while back Kyra drew my attention to the existence of The Poetry Archive's collection of historic recordings. With enthusiasm I sought out Louis MacNeice reading 'Prayer Before Birth', a poem which begs to be read aloud. Except, it turns out, not by MacNeice. Obviously I'm speaking with the arrogance of someone raised on an entirely different style of voice acting, but all I can hear is a standard BBC announcer's voice. It baffles me slightly, because very few of the great tricks of language that the poem employs are showcased in his version, and I can't help wondering how he read it when off-air. I like to think he'd have put a little more life into it, but ultimately the way a poem is read is in the hands of the person reading it - we all have to decide what to do with the words as they're written, and I may just have to accept that MacNeice and I heard the same words differently.

On a similar note, the fact that I acquired my copy of the audio version of The Nation's Favourite Poems for free probably disqualifies me from criticising it at length, but I thought it was pretty terrible. It rendered everything boring, suffered from serious Poetry Voice Syndrome and I'm suspicious of how ecstatic it's appropriate to sound when reading Keats's 'Ode to Autumn' (even accounting for the fact that quite a lot of people like Keats more than I do). As I just admitted, interpretation of a poem is subjective, but I don't think they bothered to interpret - the readers just put on The Voice and plodded through. It would be nice to hear them engaging with the mechanics of the poetry, taking that metaphorical look under the bonnet and working out which bits should be chiming together, contrasting or complimenting each other. Poetry doesn't need a metronome - it has it's own, more vibrant, way of moving.

If there's a point to this ramble (and if you've read this far I suppose I owe you one) it's firstly an appreciation of poets who write for the ear. They've been around for centuries and they're not extinct yet. The secondary point would be an appreciation of good performers, because if you're not reading the poem yourself then you rely on someone else interpreting it for you. If they don't engage with the poem in a way you can relate to, listening can be a frustrating or baffling experience. Worse of all, it can be boring. I never got to the end of that Nation's Favourite Poems CD, despite dipping into the books quite a bit, and I don't think it's entirely because I destroyed my attention span with cartoons in the 80s.

To put on my tinfoil hat, I have suspicions that an over-emphasis on silent reading in schools is partly responsible for any decline in exposure to poetry for the ear. I think teachers spend so long drumming it into us that reading in our heads is the standard to aspire to that it's easy to forget that sometimes one loses something by neglecting the out-loud aspect of a work. When I began university the tutors attempted to reteach us the value of reading poems and plays aloud, but it's a difficult lesson to learn as an adult. I can't be the only person who felt a bit stupid quietly reciting Shakespeare in my bedroom, wondering if my flatmates could hear me through the walls (and obviously if you go to the trouble of reading a play out loud you may as well go the extra distance and do the silly voices). I've gradually been converting to the value of actually reading aloud, though, and hearing other people performing has made me realise how much more there is to verse than the printed aspect. It's encouraging to know that a lot of poets still write for the ear instead of just the eye, and that so many performers still appreciate how language works.

And sometimes, you find them where you might not expect to. Some of them might be starring in literary festivals, but many more are squeezing into tiny bars and arty cafes across the country and showing us what they can do.
Themes: Books, Theatre

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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 18:17 on 2009-06-19
This is actually something I can kind of appreciate, despite generally not being a poetry person. I've read a not-insignificant chunk of Shakespeare and thought it was good but the real genius of some of the plays (and, admittedly, most of the sonnets) was pretty much lost on me until I got in with a group of friends who'd do random public read-throughs of plays with unashamed enthusiasm for the text -- and that really did make a difference.
Jamie Johnston at 19:00 on 2009-06-19
Seconded. I vividly remember the first time I really twigged how Shakespearean verse works. It was the last revision session before the English A Level exam, and the head of the department did a sort of 'guest spot'. We'd spent however many weeks on Antony & Cleopatra doing themes and plot devices and characters and all that, and indeed we'd even spent a decent amount of time spotting the things we knew were Poetic Phenomena like alliteration, internal rhyme, deviation from metre, and so on; but this teacher actually said, "Okay, so that's alliteration, but what does that *do*? *Why* is it clever to use a rhyme here? What does the rhythm of this line do to the emphasis in the sentence?" "Er... Oh. Oooooooohhhhhh. I see. Oh wow. I mean... wow."

Have to confess I've never sought out a live poetry performance but I always enjoy it when I hear it.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:17 on 2009-06-26
Yay, vindication.

I need to start moving in random-Shakespeare circles :-) Though I was once in a Byron pairing, which sounds either a lot worse or a lot cooler than it actually was. It definitely helped me appreciate the text, though.

And that sounds like an awesome lesson, Jamie. Glad ir came in time for the exam...
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