The evolution of a reading

My post on difficult poetry and poetry readings spawned an interesting discussion. Both Laura and Bev felt there was a strong connection between hearing a poem and understanding it, which is interesting considering how difficult it can be to grasp the meaning of a poem on first listen. Bev wrote,

The speaking is what makes it come alive for me. If I don’t understand a poem, I read it aloud two or three times. Btw, when I was working on my graduate degree in Eng. lit, I was assigned to the university’s writing tutorial services. I used to work with students who were having problems with their essays. I frequently had students bring in a poem they were supposed to write about. They wouldn’t know what to say because they didn’t understand the poem. I think they thought I’d explain it to them. Instead, I’d make them read it to me at least a couple of times — sometimes more. The first time was usually quite pathetic. Subsequent attempts were usually much better. After a couple of readings, we’d sit and discuss the poem – and most times, they’d already be starting to get the meaning. I liken the process to talking to your dog about your problems. You already know the answer, but you just have to hear it.

Ivy Alvarez stressed the importance of warming up before giving a public performance.

I think if poets are going to read their work aloud, they should practise being heard, otherwise what’s the point?

I know there’s plenty to think about while a person’s up on stage [nerves, do I gotta go pee, is my time up, why are they looking at me funny, have I got all my poems, hey, he’s cute, random thoughts like that] but that’s why one has to warm-up beforehand.

I can’t help thinking that poets who give lackluster readings are just being lazy — unless, as Marly suggested, they are deliberately affecting “a toneless, mechanical sort of reading,” stemming from a “desire for the inaccessible.” Just because I’ve written a poem doesn’t mean I automatically know the best way to read it right off the bat. I thought it might be fun to record myself in three different stages of comprehension of a given poem, using the most recent thing I’ve written. If I’d saved a recording of every take, this would’ve been close to an hour long and about as exciting as listening to a guitarist practice the same riff over and over.


Probably no one will ever accuse me of a lack of enthusiasm for poetry. But you can have too much of a good thing, creating a sort of enthusiasma that makes normal breathing difficult. That’s a line I hope never to cross. But I think I may have gone a little too far with this particular recording adventure, mixing in a harmonica (my very inadequate rendering of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight for the Blind”). You can listen to the results on the poem’s new page at shadow cabinet.

By the way, in case anyone was wondering, the poem was not autobiographical. (You’ll notice I included it in the Masque section of shadow cabinet.) I chose it for this reading exercise mainly because it was short, without thinking that I’ll probably want to revise it at some point. Well, if I do, I’ll simply erase these recordings and make new ones, I guess.


Speaking of evolution, Happy Darwin Day, y’all.

13 Replies to “The evolution of a reading”

  1. I think this works effectively Dave. The harmonica offers more of an ambient presence than an intrusive melody. Nicely read too – your voice serves the poem well.

  2. The harmonica offers more of an ambient presence than an intrusive melody.
    Really? See, that’s what I wasn’t able to decide for myself. I appreciate the feedback.

  3. I think of reading as very much like acting: a bit of rehearsal always benefits performance. I surprised myself by liking the harmonica version. Dick’s right, it’s unobtrusive, I think. (But then, by the time I heard that version I’d heard the poem several times and there’s rehearsal to hearing as well as reading.)

  4. Thanks for the comment, MB. As a professional musician and performer, your perspective is a a valuable one.

    there’s rehearsal to hearing as well as reading
    Good point. So maybe the jury’s still out about whether it works or not!

    (No matter, though. I’m sure I’ll keep messing around with stuff that that, to amuse myself if nothing else.)

  5. I liked both version – with and without harmonica. I’d probably find it more difficult to concentrate on the meaning of the words in the harmonica version if I were listening to it cold — but that’s probablly due to a of a weird hearing-comprehension idiosyncrasy that I have had all of my life. I do agree with what MB has said above about “rehearsal to hearing” — again, it’s that thing about hearing something repeated a couple of times — the meaning begins to grow the more times you hear something. For example, after hearing you read the poem, after the second time, I began to see that last part about the “crib” in a very different way that when I read it in print. I got a much better picture of that in my mind after hearing you speak those lines.

  6. Huh. I wonder if I’ve heard it as well myself? Many “slam” poets stress the importance of memorizing performance texts, but I’ve never wanted to commit my own words to memory for some reason, and didn’t this time. As a result, I had to focus on the written text each time I read it and therefore probably didn’t manage the level of dissociation from text on playback that you’re enjoying.

    FWIW, my first draft had “cell” for “crib.”

  7. I liked the harmonica in the background, but think I’d be distracted by it if it were my first time hearing the poem. I was able to sort of tune it out and appreciate its effect, but only cause I’d been able to concentrate on just your voice in the previous recordings.

    This poem sounds pretty different than I imagined it would.

  8. Laura – Thanks for the feedback.
    This poem sounds pretty different than I imagined it would. Oh yeah? Well, poetry is all about surprise, I guess.

    Karen – Thanks. It shows up on Google as a frequent typo, and, of course, a valid word in Spanish.

  9. The first, unrehearsed version is my favourite. Real emotion, a certain tiredness, maybe the resignation to everyday reality, and a very young, almost teen-age note in the voice. Maybe I’m reading things into it, the way wine-tasters talk about “a note of vanilla” or something, in a sip of wine.
    But after that ,the second version sounds rather artificial to me – though art-ifice may be what a lot of art is about. For some reason, I kept getting gaps in the reading, even though my broadband speed is good. Couldn’t hear the harmonica part at all.

  10. Natalie – Thanks for this contrarian opinion. I’m sorry you’re having trouble hearing them, though. I don’t know what to suggest, other than maybe ditching the Mac and getting a PC. :)

  11. Late coming, but here I am: I liked the harmonica version too. It’s such a wistful little tune, and not at all obtrusive. I like it when words and music match.

    The less dramatic version of the poem is certainly less “present,” the enunciation doesn’t jump out, but it has its own considerable charm. I don’t have anything against “poet’s voice” in general, but in this case, subtle seems to me better. So, I’m with Nathalie.

    Good poem, by the way. Don’t know if anyone said that yet. Works well on the page and in the ear.

    Congratulations, Dave, on pushing the possibilities of the medium. When can we expect a live video feed of you doing your morning ablutions?

  12. Thanks for commenting. Of course, if I’d wanted to make my point more effectively, I should’ve have recorded it first thing in the morning, before drinking my coffee. I’m convinced that some of these lackluster poetry readings are simply the tragic consequence of insufficient caffeination. Anyway, I’m glad you liked the poem. Not sure I’m ready to make videos yet. I try to stay a couple years behind the hot new web trends.

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