How to Read a Poem

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?

18 Replies to “How to Read a Poem”

  1. I’ve been attempting to record readings of my stuff for 5 or 6 years. It is pure hell, that’s all I can say about the process. There are no easy tricks, or definitive approaches, or ways that work. Basically I know that a recording is going to require a marathon of probably 2 days of work, and that ‘the reading,’ if it happens at all, is slightly magical – and by that I mean it makes me wince less than all the other recordings filling that file on my hard drive. It’s the reading that I can listen to a few times without cringing. It’s like listening to someone who is not me. I know it only happens when I break open, and the poem becomes its own voice. Of course, I get very little response to my work, so I realize that what I go through is my own set of impossible requirements.

    I think reading your work is way harder than writing it. The reading is an interpretation, and any interpretation precludes other approaches, which makes deciding on a particular take difficult.

    And then I got into adding music backgrounds – a challenge that’s almost more than I can deal with at times. So far, I’ve been fortunate and the ‘Creative Commons share alike/derivatives allowed’ musicians have been very kind in their responses to my efforts – sometimes clearly when my reading wasn’t at all how they envisaged their work might be used.

    I can see why a music CD takes 2 years on average to create. I’ve been working nearly a year on an album of poetry readings with Jamendo musicians, and so far it’s 23 minutes long! The final may be 30 minutes, and it’s been a herculean task!

    Not to scare anyone away from recording their poetry! Do it however you do it. Some of us enjoy wrestling with our vocal muses; some of us don’t. The reading is a unique event however it comes about, a gift.

    1. Hi Brenda – Recording is another whole angle and one you seem to have mastered. Perhaps you’d be able to write a guest post for Voice Alpha at some point? We do want to include technological advice, and I’m also very interested in your experiences working with musicians. Live music has been a part of poetry readings ever since the Beats, after all.

      1. Oh, my, not how I think of my attempts in this area, but be honoured to.

        Because I have an iMac, and GarageBand, I made myself explore it – money’s worth, you know! I experiment a lot and think while perhaps interesting to some more technically-inclined would scare most poets off. So if I do write an article I’d have to vet it through you if you don’t mind. I’ll write about what I’ve come, through a few years of exploration, to do, and then you can make suggestions for how to tone it down.

        I also use Audacity, which is a great freeware program, for mac or pc, and which a poet can use to make excellent recordings – with or without music.

        With the music that I’ve used, mostly it’s picking a poem, do a reading to get a sense of the time, then searching through Jamendo for something like the music I’m hearing in my head. I hate to cut a musician’s work, so length is important. With the luck of key words and so on I’ve been able to find perfect tracks for my pieces.

        In the process of creating the reading I’ll email the musician and then send them the link to the piece when I get it posted on-line. I leave a little note at the album where I found the track too, always giving full stars.

        So I haven’t actually collaborated with anyone, yet. (Except Buz Hendricks, but he did a mix, and then I did another one – we sort of send each other the finished versions, rather than composing together.)

        But, then, poets do write alone, by nature solitary sorts, and recording likewise is a personal approach.

        1. Robert A at Gather gave me some excellent advice and simply changed all my recordings from then on… mapped in a post here: Drumbeat

          Those screenshots are Audacity. I’d be using screenshots like that in a ‘how to edit your voice recordings’ article.

        2. Well, this wouldn’t have to be a completely comprehensive and authoritative post (unless you really feel compelled to write one). Just what you’ve written here, plus some information on what sort of CC license to look for and how to search by license on Jamendo, and a few anecdotes, would make a good post by itself. But yeah, feel free to share drafts and ideas by email, and I can share with Nic and the others, too.

          1. Very busy presently, I’ll send something along in a few weeks, if that’s ok.

            Lovely writing, too, btw. A rich set of images phrased as questions. Questions that open imaginative possibilities. For reading aloud – it takes a moment to realize that you don’t mean how to read poetry but how to read poetry.

            I like the humour in your style.

  2. I love this sentence: “Time eventually translates all poems into pure rhythmic babble, as open to interpretation as the surf.”

    I love to hear Nic S. read anyone’s poetry.

    You have a way of chanting your poems, Dave, kind of like a beat poet, but kind of just like you!

  3. So true, Dave – in the end, every poem stands open like temple doors, ready to be made into something else by each reader who approaches it with respect – the possibilities really are endless.

    I hope Brenda writes a piece for Voice Alpha (pleeez, Brenda!).

    Thanks for the kind words, Christine!

  4. Oddly, I just saw a book in the shop, by the same title as your post… “How To Read a Poem”. Alas, I didn’t note the author.

    1. Yes indeed. Fortunately, titles are not protected by copyright. There’s How to Read a Poem, by Burton Raffel; How to Read a Poem, by Terry Eagleton; How to Read a Poem, by Edward Hirsch; and The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem, by Shira Wolosky.

      1. Hah! Sounds like a recurring theme! Were the books one each generation, or bunched together?

        Even language drift doesn’t completely undo poetry — back in college, I heard a bit of Beowulf being read in the original (iirc) Old English, and it was still clearly poetry.

        1. I think they’re spread out a little bit, but not by as much as a generation.

          There are a lot of rhythmic and sonorous sounds in nature, too. Are they poetry? If it’s not a language we understand, it’s hard to say.

          1. Sometimes poets aspire to match the speech of the woods, with enveloping images and half-rhythmic sound. Of course, that’s only one direction poetry can reach toward.

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