The problem with the Poetry Voice

After hearing a recording of Sharon Olds reading the opening of one of her poems, “Balladz,” I am reminded that the default “poetry voice” style of recitation or reading constrains the poem. It is obsolete and dated, but not yet abandoned.

The poetry voice, as I hear it, is a relatively monotone and slow recitation at a slightly elevated pitch, sometimes with a bit of lift at the end of the line. There is a pause at the end of each line, whether the poem is end-stopped or enjambed when printed. Poetry voice recitations sound a bit as if the speaker is addressing a beginning ESL student, enunciating clearly and keeping a proper distance between words.

The poetry voice is probably intended to deliver an ethereal sense of importance, a suggestion of wisdom. Varying line lengths accomplish that on the printed page. The poetry voice is akin to the measured, elevated rhetoric of a Presbyterian sermon, or the solemnity of a eulogy, a poem celebrating a coronation, or grandpa explaining what a carburetor was.

The poetry voice works fine for some poems, maybe, but not for most. Here is a problem. Delivering in the poetry voice, some poets sound pontifical, others sound as if in a trance. But a lot of poetry, especially contemporary poetry, is best received when delivered in a normal human conversational voice.

That normal voice conveys authenticity, a sense of spontaneity, and intimacy. A conversational voice pleases listeners, and guides listeners, by revealing the poem’s intended unique rhythm of different speaker emotions at various points: a normal, unguarded voice relies on inflections to express changes in the arc of the speaker’s emotions and attitudes: certainty at one moment but hesitance at another. Yes, often there is a character arc in poems, perhaps most obviously in odes and meditations.

Look at your own poems’ first and last lines. Has the unnamed speaker or persona of the poem learned something or changed in some of those poems?

This variation in the speaker’s awareness is especially important in the fictive poems we write, those poems with a persona not the same as we ourselves, maybe a persona of a different gender, era, age, nationality, or profession. Such poems are scripts for a prepared reciter (if delivered orally) or a prepared reader, and cannot be “heard” well inside our imaginations upon first reading, or while listening to a recitation in the poetry voice. You as the poet are well prepared to recite your poem, but someone finding it in a printed literary journal is not.

The actor Jessica Chastain did not nail her character at the cast’s first table reading of The Eyes of Tammy Faye. She totally nailed it after reading and understanding the whole script.

Is a line meant to be understood as ironic? Is the utterance insistent or reluctant? Open or deceitful? Playful or angry? Whimsical or nihilistic?

Have you ever read a serious, good poem on the page for the first time, and known how each line was meant to be heard? No. That is why reading screenplays is not nearly as rich an experience as hearing the same lines delivered by skilled actors who know the whole text before uttering the first line.

The poetry voice is also akin to text-to-speech computer programs, without the perky enthusiasm of some corporate website chat programs.

Speaking of text-to-speech programs, here is a fun diversion next time you are avoiding writing. Paste a poem of yours in the following link, go to the speaker icon to the left of the play button, and select a reader (you can select from several languages).

This is a fun trip, and text actually sounds more nuanced than some poetry-voice recitations I have heard poets deliver. But does your poem survive the journey, qua poem? Even if the computer voice were slower, the answer would still be no.

Your poem might not survive delivery in the poetry voice, either.


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