How to read it, that intangible squat object in the plaza of Literature, Inc. that forces us to take a circuitous route to the door? We scan it uneasily looking for something we know. Does it mark us as rubes, to say a poem straight? Should it not be chanted like a Latin Mass, or the Quran in an Arabic no one actually speaks? Should we commit its every syllable to memory like Chinese reciting Li Bai, the 1300-year-old lines turned incomprehensible in Mandarin by the homonymic convergence of once-divergent words? Time eventually translates all poems into pure rhythmic babble, as open to interpretation as the surf. Why fight it? Why impose one possible reading out of many? The choices seem so arbitrary: how studied or how spontaneous, that catch in the breath, a half-second pause before the interrogatory rise. What if we ignored the doors to Literature, Inc. and let ourselves forget whatever it was we thought we came to read? Try it. Try squatting on your haunches to watch the pigeons, heads nodding as they walk, that self-important bob. Let the poem open on its own. Try turning your mouth into an ear.
For more concrete advice, join the discussion at Voice Alpha blog, which is all about reading poetry aloud for an audience. We’re even offering free advice in the form of a poetry-reading agony column (or would like to, if anyone screws up the courage to actually write us). The most recent post, by Kristin Berkey-Abbott: “Make Your Poetry Reading More Like a Festive Party than a Forced Eating of Rutabagas.” My own most recent contribution asks, “Can a good poetry reading get you laid?”