Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Monday, February 27, 2012

Performers: The Tortoise and the Brulber

The Tortoise

A British actor who goes by the pseudonyms "Spoken Verse" and "Tom o' Bedlam" is well known by YouTubers for two reasons:

  1. He successfully fought YouTube to have his slide show rendition of Michael Ondaatje's "The Cinnamon Peeler" reinstated after it was removed because it contained a brief, semi-nude artistic photo.


  2. He swears he records his voice on a Rode Podcaster microphone but it seems more likely that he uses Optical Character Recognition and voice generation software to create the robotic effect of an old Englishman about to fall asleep, dragging all of us down with him.

There is a lot to admire about this man. He seems to have excellent taste in both poetry and hardware. He got YouTube to revise and expedite its policy regarding artistic nudity. He makes some lovely videos, using stanzaic text rather than the more common subtitle approach. He might be the second best known voice in poetry after Garrison Keillor, a thought that may disturb more people than it comforts.

How, then, could anyone this clever be so utterly lost when it comes to poetry presentation? (Mr. Bedlam shies away from the word "performance".) He can't possibly think that this is how humans want to hear anything, can he?

Actually, he addresses this very question in one of his videos. In doing so, he makes a number of insightful observations. Unfortunately, none of them support the point he's trying to make, which is that the solution to poets reading too fast is to read wa-a-a-a-a-a-ay too slowly and without inflection or intonation of any sort. He addresses the stark difference between himself, the omega, and those of the underlying poet, a near-alpha by the name of Tim Murphy:

"In fact, I read this poem as 'ponderously' as I could: more so than I usually would, in fact. I did so to demonstrate and defend a principle, and then to explain why I read the poem this way.

"If you hear most people read poetry, even poets themselves, it tends to go in one ear and out the other. To be understood, any speech has to be delivered slowly and expressively enough for the listener to grasp what is being said, consider it and form mental images, draw differences and inferences. A printed poem can be studied at length but a reading has only one shot at getting through to you: it's the difference between a movie and a novel.

"Shakespearian actors will deliver lines more quickly than they could possibly have occurred to the speaker. It's a common problem, particularly in amateur dramatics, where the cast speed up as the play progresses, delivering their lines instantly on hearing their cues. As Shakespeare himself said, they imitate humanity abominably."

So far, so good, although I could quibble about judging performance on the basis of bad performers. As they say, bad actors pause for breath, good ones pause for thought. Now Mr. Bedlam begins to overreach:

"The poet has a problem - he knows the poem too well. Asking him to read it is like asking the guy who designed something to write the instruction manual. What's obvious to the inventor isn't obvious to everybody else. It's the same trap as asking an artist to explain his own work: the artist is often unaware of what art he has created. The artist shouldn't explain for fear of limiting his genius and perhaps the poet shouldn't read for fear of trivialising his poem."

A quick straw poll: Who would pay a sizeable sum to watch William Shakespeare perform "Sonnet LXXIII"?

Thanks for your participation. You may all put your hands down now.

It is one thing to say that poets are terrible performers. Most are. It is quite another to suggest that their performance has no value, especially in discerning authorial intent.

"You can brood for hours over a written poem, thinking about nuances of meaning and imagery: not so, a poem read aloud. The reading has to bring out what Ezra called the melopoeia, the sound that the poem makes, its rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, assonances, onomatopoeia, etc.

"If this is the only time anybody is going to hear one of Mr. Murphy's poems, then this is his only shot at grabbing their attention and impressing them. And making them want more."

This point is worth highlighting since it is one that many contemporary poets fail to grasp. Our first exposure to a poem should be audiovisual, watching it being performed. Not recited, and certainly not read by or to us. And, yes, a good first impression can, indeed, inspire replay, just as it does with music, but not for any recording by Mr. Bedlam. Once is quite enough, thank you.

"But there's an inherent limitation in reading aloud too: a reading is only one 'take' and can only approach the ideal, it can never quite make the most of a lovely cadence that rings so perfectly in your mind's ears; it can only be one interpretation of what might have many nuances of meaning. Reading is more about the audible qualities of the poem than the sense of the poem: these are often mutually exclusive to some extent. A poem that sounds jaunty can be quite sinister etc."

Surely a key "audible quality" is the vitality, tone and inflection of natural speech, though, all of which are conspicuously absent from Mr. Bedlam's renditions. Now he ventures off the ledge, demonstrating some legerdemain and no small amount of hubris in comparing--favorably, no less--his meager talent with that of Mr. Murphy, sampled here (if your computer won't play the video click on "Launch in a new window" and wait a moment).

"I suggest that you listen to Mr. Murphy reading his own work, and see if you can remember anything he said afterwards. Then compare and contrast my manner of reading."

Mr. Bedlam is inviting comparison between his studio version of Mr. Murphy's best poem and a noisy, live performance of a number of lesser original pieces. (I have always argued that, regardless of material, performer or author, more than one poem at a time risks an overdose.) One could hardly imagine a sober, sane individual outside of his immediate family preferring Mr. Bedlam's tortoise nervosa version of any poem to the same one delivered by Tim Murphy.

As we saw with John Marcus Powell, Mr. Bedlam makes the error of confusing the part with the whole; performance involves much more than clarity of enunciation. As for it being memorable, is it memorably good, like sex and William Shakespeare, or memorably bad, like root canals and William McGonagall? Personally, I rarely remember things that lull me to sleep. I'm funny that way.

The Brulber

Like all too many others in the poetry world, Mr. Bedlam adopts an ostrich approach when faced with criticism. He has set his YouTube posts to not allow thumbs up or down, no doubt because of a preponderance of the latter. He deletes any comments that aren't flattering. This Convenient Poetics activism is rampant among careerists. It's like blurbing in reverse. We need to coin a new term for this turtle shell stance: "to brulb".

In light of his rationalizations and brulbing, prospects for Mr. Bedlam improving are bleak, at best.

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