Reading Aloud

“First I would like to write for you a poem to be

shouted in the teeth of

a strong wind.

Next I would like to write for you to sit on a

hill and read down the

river valley on a late summer afternoon,

reading it in less than a whisper….”

Carl Sandburg


Here’s some advice on reading poetry aloud or reciting

First, from the wonderful Scottish Poetry Library

Next, a video link from the American Poetry Out Loud website

We say keep your chosen poem close to yourself to start with. Read it on the page or on your phone a good few times. Allow it to involve you and require you to make choices about how you think it’s best read line by line, about the tone it requires. Then try reading it aloud to yourself, no one listening. Spend time with it and appreciate its impact on you. Good poems are usually exact even in their inexactness. What do you, in turn and exactly, like about how it’s put together? What its magic?  Keep returning to it. Immerse yourself in it in a spirit of curiosity. Any nerves you may have will evaporate by the time you’ve got this close up and intimate.

Eileen Murphy, on the Poetry Foundation website selects ten poems students love to read out loud. She selects them to show all the elements a reader can work with: attitude, rhyme, point of view, syntax, intonation, imagery, sound devices, allusion, and why a speaker within a poem speaks at all.

Robert Pinsky, former USA Poet Laureate, and the inspiration behind the Favourite Poem Project, says: ‘Read it aloud to relish the consonants and vowels and the way the verbs and adjectives and nouns do their job’.

Try writing your poem out in long hand slowly and reflectively a few times. Ask someone sympathetic to listen. This shows you any lapses of concentration, and therefore of delivery, due to self consciousness. The remedy is simple : plunge into the poem, concentrating on it 100%. Remember, your listeners are there to enjoy and appreciate your choice, not to rate your skills as a reader, so don’t get in the way.

Josephine Hart said :
‘the sense of sound, and what Robert Frost described as “the sound of sense”, is lost unless we hear it. The loss is incalculable. Increasingly our inner ear is failing and an entire sound archive from which great poetry was not only created, but appreciated and understood, is fading away. For centuries this inner ear was trained through the speaking of poetry out loud, the oral tradition not a discipline but a voluptuous joy as we absorbed into memory the resonance of sound. The echo chambers of our minds are becoming silent. Children can leave school, or indeed university, without hearing some of the greatest lines ever written, by some of the greatest poets in this or any other language, lines mostly written to be “sounded out”.’

The Alzheimer’s Project  suggests projecting poems “like a street corner seller from Elizabethan England, say a fish monger. How about sounding like a hotdog vendor from a baseball game? Think of how an auctioneer sounds or a flight attendant. How would a lover read a poem before a fireplace in full woo mode? Try on different regional accents. There is such a richness of voice in a New England fisherman’s voice, a Southern Bell’s mint julep, or a Texas rodeo twang. The idea is to be playful in your reading; to use a variety of volumes and intensity; to listen to all the wonderful voices around you and bring them into your reading. You don’t have to be a perfect mimic, just be aware of all the possible sounds the human voice can make”.

Rita Dove describes the involvement of the whole body in spoken language: ‘The music is so important to me, I can’t really emphasize that too much. I think that one of the ways that a poem convinces us is not just the words, the meaning of the words, but the sound of them in our mouths, the way they increase our heartbeat or not, the amount of breath it takes to say a sentence, whether it will make us breathless at the end or whether it gives us time for repose or contemplation. It’s the way our entire body gets involved in the language being spoken. And even if we are reading the poem silently, those rhythms exist.’

Marge Piercy pleads with her readers to enhance their appreciation of her poem by saying it out loud, and not to worry if they sound foolish: ‘A poem like this one is designed to be said and heard, and the more you overcome any fear you have of making a fool of yourself and experiment with saying poems — chanting them, reciting them, shouting them, crooning them, the more you will hear of how each is put together and therefore the more enjoyment you’ll get out of a poem. A poem speaks to you with its sounds and its rhythms as much as it speaks to you in the meaning of its word.’

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) practises what he preaches about sound:

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;

But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus’ vary’d Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World’s Victor stood subdu’d by Sound!
The Pow’rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.

Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds Of Poetry, A Brief Guide contains meaty yet accessible instruction in how to hear the language of poetry consciously, so that we can start to enjoy poems and lines of poems more and more. It’s a brilliant book for anyone who wants to discover the ‘bodily art’ of poetry, the way poems create their effects in the reader. In Pinsky’s words ‘The theory of this guide is that poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art. The medium of poetry is a human body : the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth.’ Pinsky grounds his discussion of accent, stress, verse form and syntax in relaxed and revelatory readings of many poems. Taking as his epigraph Yeats’ lines ‘Nor is there singing school, but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence’, he adds that ‘no instruction manual can teach as much as careful attention to the sounds in even one great poem’. His guide achieves a great deal in a short space in a very pleasurable way. By increasing appreciation and understanding, it cannot but help improve reading aloud skills as well. Excellent.

Patsy Rodenburg, the legendary UK voice teacher, in The Right To Speak. Working With The Voice, explores the factors that prevent us using our voices the best we can. This is a thoroughly practical, comprehensive and simple manual written for anyone who wants to liberate their voice from any one of the many possible acquired restraints and distortions. She discusses how habits take root, how they can be brought under control, and how the voice works naturally. “ I want to look at how the voice gets blocked, the different kinds of strains and tensions we make our voices suffer, and how the voice can be relaxed from all this anxiety and extended in range and colour. Mostly I want you to see for yourself how the conspiracy against your right to speak evolved. How background, gender, injury or illness can all taint the sound we make. Maybe I can explode some of the nagging myths that arise, frighten and sometimes paralyse so many average speakers….nothing is quite so freeing and enlarging as a liberated voice.” This is a marvellous book that, with use, convincingly demonstrates how exciting and revealing voice work can be. It gives plenty of exercises to be getting on with, either alone, with friends or in the company of a voice coach. Highly recommended.

The Need For Words. Voice And The Text, the sequel to The Right to Speak, links voice work with more extended work on language and texts. She explores how to connect your voice to words so that you can speak any kind of text with ease and confidence. ” Any good speaker must captivate us with a need for words…when (the voice) releases the power inherent in individual words and texts we come into our own as communicators”. She explains how different cultural problems and barriers block our need for words, showing us how to work on a text and what cues it contains for the voice.. The second half of the book is full of interesting and enjoyable exercises for finding our voices and connecting with specific texts.The chapter ‘Voice into Text’ would be particularly useful for Pass On A Poem readers, whether they have some experience in reading poetry out loud or are new to it. Rodenburg demonstrates step by step how to unlock a great oral text in the act of speaking it, offering ‘a way of arousing a practical partnership between you and the writer of the text’. In the final chapter, she accompanies us on a further journey through a series of texts, familiar and unfamiliar, including poems, verse plays and dramatic dialogues and monologues from several centuries ‘so you can begin mating your own voice to the challenge of speaking aloud.’ A passionate, truly useful and inspiring book.