Poetry Friday: Listening and Reading

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

Talk about poetry’s tradition as an oral art, and someone will counter that they wouldn’t want to give up the intimate pleasure of sitting alone and silently reading a favorite collection.  But there is no conflict here.

For at least tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of written language, poems were shared orally/aurally.  There was no other choice; they were memorized and recited.  Before we had any knowledge of physiology, how poems were carried in the body was considered somewhat magical.  The ability to recite long poems with accuracy and feeling was greatly admired and earned the shaman or bard a place of honor.  No wonder that respiration, inspiration and spirit all share a common root. Poems and life itself were carried on the breath, and no one really knew where they came from or where they went.

Listening to poems and stories recited or read aloud has been a part of being human since social groups emerged.  Children still delight in being read the same fables or nursery rhymes again and again (and again and again and again).  As adults we sometimes need to be reminded of what a pleasure it is to be read to, but once we relive this experience recognize it as something that appeals to some fundamental part of our nature.

Written language made it possible to record poems for posterity, and the printing press allowed for wider dissemination of those texts.  But these developments also froze poems in the form they were in at the time they were written down, thus halting the centuries of constant revision they’d gone through while being passed down through generations.  As a result, Chaucer’s poems were frozen on the page in their original English while the spoken language continued to change.  By Shakespeare’s time, few people knew how to read Chaucer’s English aloud.

The First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays is rife with what we would call spelling and grammatical errors.  Modern readers and editors, accustomed to the more formalized written English that is the result of centuries of printing, see the eccentricities of speech captured in the First Folio as mistakes, the result of bad copyediting.  What the text captures is the transition from an oral to a printed literary tradition.  And this points us toward the major difference between a spoken and a written text.

A written text is permanent and unchanging, frozen in time.  There are exceptions, as when a scholar discovers that an author’s original intentions were altered by an editor, and a corrected text appears.  Even in these cases, the original work rarely goes through the kind of major revision that was common when texts were passed down through the oral tradition.  Modern authors, unlike their ancient predecessors, write with the expectation that what they have recorded will not be changed.

As modern readers, we also have the sense that a published text is permanent and unchanging.  If we put a book down to answer the phone, we don’t expect what’s on the page to be altered in any way when we return.  If it were, we’d be greatly alarmed.  This allows us the luxury to re-read a poem, a stanza or a line many times in a single sitting, or over days, months, years and decades.  The text doesn’t change over time, but we do.  This immersion in a written text over a lifetime is one of the deep pleasures of reading, one that is irreplaceable.

Some who treasure this experience, including a few very influential critics, are offended by the idea of huge poetry gatherings.  They seem particularly bothered by poets who have the ability to move large crowds.  Among the chief complaints is that a live reading doesn’t allow you to go back and reread a line or passage that you didn’t quite hear or absorb.  Perhaps you were still dwelling on an earlier image and lost track of where the poem was headed, or something in the audience distracted you.  But unpredictability and impermanence are the features that make a live reading of a poem different from its written text.  Accepting the temporal nature of a live event and surrendering to the experience by allowing yourself to ride along wherever the human voice takes you can be one of the great pleasures of a poetry reading, that is, if you allow yourself to have it.  You can always read the text later.

I wouldn’t want to give up the many hours I’ve spent in silence reading poetry.  Some of the most profound experiences I’ve had with any art were had when I was reading alone, in my own study, in a quiet house.  This has been an essential part of my life for over four decades, and I can’t imagine wanting a life devoid of this great pleasure.

I also wouldn’t want to give up the experience of hearing Stanley Kunitz, nearing 100, give a reading in the main tent at the Dodge Festival that was followed by 2,000 people rising to their feet for the longest standing ovation I have ever seen.

These experiences aren’t mutually exclusive, and one isn’t had at the expense of the other.  Listening to a favorite piece of music on a good set of headphones can wash away a stressful day and refresh and reinvigorate us.  No one would therefore suggest we shouldn’t attend live concerts.  Likewise, no one would insist that we should only listen to live music.  I’ve been listening to Paul Simon’s songs on records and then CDs all my life, often alone.  This doesn’t replace the experience of hearing 65,000 people sing “The Sounds of Silence” when he and Art Garfunkel performed in the Meadowlands.  The private immersion enhanced the public sharing and this is true for poems.

Why make demands on poetry we wouldn’t make on other arts?  I heard the Harlem Quartet play Wynton Marsalis’ “At the Octoroon Balls” only once in concert.  Like any listener, there were passages when I was more or less attentive, or when the facial expression of the cellist distracted me from what the violinist was playing.  You can only absorb so much at a single hearing.  So I bought the CD.  Listening to the recording repeatedly at my leisure, I’ve heard nuances and layers and connections I missed at that first hearing.  Yet, driving in my car while it’s playing is an entirely different experience from sharing that listening with other audience members, witnessing the musicians’ connection to the music and to each other as they were playing, and from hearing the vibrato of the strings come alive in the air.

A studio recording is as close to perfection as possible.  There are no sounds of people coughing or sneezing, turning over the pages of the program, or shifting in their chairs.  But there is also no shared experience, no sense that what’s happening in this place is happening right now, can never be duplicated, and that anything can happen.

Which takes us back to Shakespeare.  Some people were outraged by a recent production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream that used hip-hop and modern dance, insisting the play had been ruined.  What they meant was that the production did not honor their idea of how the play should be performed.  Nothing can replace the pleasure of imagining that idealized performance as we read Shakespeare, but nothing can replace seeing a great performance, either.  We may prefer one production over another, and there are bad productions of the plays just as there are bad poems and bad poetry readings.  But history has shown that no single production can ruin A Midsummer Night’s Dream; dozens if not hundreds of productions are done every year.  And no single performance or event can ruin poetry.  It will survive.


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