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

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Eight Poets to Ignore Part II: "Poet Voice"

Matt Petronzio
     In our original article, "Eight Poets to Ignore", we saw the various ways that poetry readers, reciters and performers fail.  This is important because, with no idea how it can be presented successfully, today's poetry aspirants will have no idea how it should be written.  When the verse being published has no sonic or performance value--and most doesn't--we have a vicious circle.  Nothing to show and no one to show it.  In the second installment in this series we focus on the plight facing those from the print world.

     In "Why are poets' voices so insufferably annoying?" we receive some advice from Matt Petronzio's grad school thesis adviser, "Catherine":  'Don't read it like it's a poem,' she said. 'Read it like you're talking to me.' In other words, read like a human."

     That's a solid tip but, better yet, don't read it at all.  Don't recite it either.  Perform it. 

Deborah Tannen
     Mr. Petronzio quotes Deborah Tannen, Linguistics professor at Georgetown University:  "You want to sound like your peer group, and you want to sound like a person you identify with should sound."

     You want to do nothing of the sort.

     Granted, mindless conformists¹ will follow along, but only after ignoring every scintilla of evidence and reason.  These lemmings would have to remain oblivious to the copious articles, including this series, ridiculing "Poet Voice", the track record of the readers (i.e. zero successes in more than half a century) and the out-of-the-mouth-of-babes observers asking "Why is that person talking funny?"

Lisa Marie Basile
    We encounter confirming counsel, this time from
Lisa Marie Basile:  "'Poet Voice', if nothing else, is simply a regurgitation of someone else's massive failings."  She goes on to compare "Poet Voice" with what I'll call "Reader Voice".  The former is simply the most risible form of the latter.  Is this really our goal, to be less laughable?  Indeed, Ms. Basile succeeds in avoiding "Poet Voice" in her own work while exemplifying "Reader Voice".  

     Here is a simple test:  have friends close their eyes while you read to them.  If they can guess it is a prepared text you were guilty of "Reader Voice" and will need to continue working on your delivery.     

Rich Smith

     While his writing won't win him any Pulitzers, Rich Smith's Stop Using 'Poet Voice' may be the definitive word on the subject, but in trying to name convincing performers he demonstrates only the difficulty of that task.  Instead, we see a range from "Poet Voicers" to "Reader Voicers" and "Reciters".  I can sympathize with his failure.  I've seen one competent performer and one great one in my time but, like Yeti sightings, I have no video to prove my claims.³  The best I can do for now is refer you to some of the entries in the "Poetry Out Loud" project.  Such is the state of the art.

     Look at some of the readings listed below² and you will see the elements of "Poet Voice" on display:

1.  Random pauses.

2.  Random head movements.

3.  Random inflections, tending to rise as phrases and sentences end.

4.  Otherwise, a monotone.

5.  Over-enunciation.

6.  Over-stressing syllables.

7.  Complete lack of facial expression.

8.  Lack of gesture.

9.  Utter failure to engage the audience (i.e. nose buried in text).

10. Shortened or "breathless" phrasing.

11. Tedious, whiny self-absorption;  too much of today's "poems" seem like email from rehab.

12. Lack of prosodic technique, verging on complete.

13. Long explanatory preramble [sic], underscoring the unnatural speaking to come.

14. Rushing.

15. Forgetting that humans are conditioned since childhood to fall asleep when you read to them.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #138
      So, what are audiences looking for?

      It's only a guess, since such audiences don't exist, but I will say it is a person who respects the words enough to learn and practice them.  It's someone who speaks to us in a natural voice, as a skilled actor or actress would.  It should seem as if the talker is winging it, pausing not for breath but for thought.  It should sound like a buddy in a bar.  It would be indistinguishable from the preamble except that, ideally, there should be no preamble.  It should be worth hearing.  Always start with that.

     If you can point to such a performance of contemporary poetry please let us know the URL.  So far, we're stumped.


¹ - Lisa Marie Basile laments this lack of circumspection in "Poet Voice and Flock Mentality:  Why Poets Need to Think for Themselves".

² - Here are eight presentations not worth emulating:

1. Gregory Orr reading "Gathering the Bones".

2. Louis Glück reading "Crossroads" from "A Village Voice".

3. Natasha Trethewey reading "Lunch Poems".

4. Timothy Donnelly hammering accented syllables.

5. Adam Fitzgerald's odd rising inflections.

6. Dorothea Lasky's breathless nasal monotone.

7. Lynn Melnick's flat reading, as if she'd never seen the text before.

8. Lisa Ciccarello, pausing randomly as if to remind us that this is "poetry".

     We might like some of these poems for aspects of their content (e.g. images, metaphors, contrasts, insights, etc.) but those are characteristics shared with fine prose.  The need to read old works from a page doesn't argue for it as poetry.

³ - In my defense, video cameras and cell phones weren't invented yet.           


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