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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who Talks Like That?

Rich Smith
     Rich Smith grew up in Belton, Missouri, but studied for an MFA at the University of Washington.  In "Stop Using 'Poet Voice'" Rich Smith speaks of the artifice used by poets more accustomed to public speaking than public performance.  He defines the problem thus:

     "'Poet voice', is the pejorative, informal name given to this soft, airy reading style that many poets use for reasons that are unclear to me. The voice flattens the musicality and tonal drama inherent within the language of the poem, and it also sounds overly stuffy and learned."
     As with  Julie R. Enszer's "Are Too Many People Writing Poetry?", Mr. Smith won't overwhelm us with his literary ability.  (Nor will his poetry, as we'll soon discover.)  Nevertheless, he makes a number of excellent points.  I'd like to pick up where he left off.

     Gregory Orr Reading "Gathering the Bones".

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #28
     First, I'd like to get the other bookend in place:  the opposite of "poet voice" is "slam voice", where participants speak too loudly, too quickly, without modulation or pause, much as an auctioneer does.  Second, I need to highlight a few other characteristics of "poet voice".

1.  Droning.

     Poet voice is every bit as monotonous--literally and figurative--as slam voice;  it's just quieter.

2. Overenunciation.

     Poets must think they're talking to people who are new to the English language.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #37
3. Random emphasis.

     The first thing a verse performer (e.g. an aspiring Shakespearean actor) learns is to avoid overstressing every second [or third] syllable.  It makes the cadence sound metronomic.  When free versers overemphasize monosyllabic words it has the opposite effect, underscoring the utter lack of rhythm.

4. Artifice.

    It is impossible to listen to any poet voicer [or slammer] without asking ourselves:  "Who talks like that?"  The problem is that speaking naturally while reciting free verse makes it sound like what most of it is:  prose.  This is the principal raison d'être for poet [and slam] voice.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #11
5. Random pauses

     Why do performers stop without warning or cause, especially after each clause?  Does every poet on the planet suffer from emphysema¹?

6. Examples.

     I hate quibbling about examples of well acted poetry outside of the theater, especially since I cannot come up with many myself.  That is the state of the art.  Yes, the poets whose performances he praises (i.e. Heather McHugh, Tim Seibles, Mary Ruefle, Jane Wong, Ed Skoog, Lisa Ciccarello, Jessalyn Wakefield, and Anthony Madrid) do sound better than other poet voicers but that is largely because they are:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #1
a) performing from memory (a must for anyone wishing to be taken seriously) for the most part; and

b) getting help from multimedia (e.g. background music, graphics, cartoons, video, et cetera).

7. Eye contact.

     Rich mentions the need to speak with, not at or down to, the audience ("the bear").  He fails to stress that comfortable eye contact is key.

     "A Poem By Rich Smith"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #66
     As with saw with the other Smith (Marc), even great performance--which this isn't--will not salvage ponderous writing.

     Judging from his work and bio, I'd say that Mr. Smith goes to Washington² where he encounters the typical interpretation-based Content Regency.  That he took this interest in presentation is remarkable.

     At the risk of ending on an immodest note, though, let me suggest that he might benefit from familiarity with The Rules of Poetry, especially as they pertain to performance.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #69
     As an aside, Rich Smith offered this:

    "(For the record, poetry is UNdead...  Do a page search of this article for 'green face powder' or 'Captain Eliot' and you’ll know what I’m talking about.)"

    No, we won't.  The mere fact that one would have to do any page searching, let alone to an article about T.S. Eliot's love life, is all the proof we need that poetry is, indeed, quite dead.  Were it alive, the evidence would be all around us, in every newspaper and magazine.


¹ - My apologies to those who do!

² - Surely you saw this coming.

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