When was the last time you heard a poem recited out loud? The experience can be uplifting and entertaining, as well as sometimes painful and mind-numbingly boring. So much depends upon the reader’s skill, preparation, and sensitivity to the unique requirements of an oral performance. Sometimes poets strain to be overly dramatic, nearly shouting, waving arms and hands around as if shooing flies. Other times, poets mumble. Sometimes poets stumble, unable to pronounce their own word choices. Some poets rush, all the words flying through the air in a blur. Some poets choose to stress certain words IN odd places THAT strike THE listener AS unnatural. And some poets move us with a finely modulated, well-prepared, clear, and heartfelt recitation. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the importance of the quality of the poems themselves (yeah, I’d say this is sort of critical too).
I have been to poetry readings by well-known poets that were tortuously awful, and I have listened to lesser talented poets and been impressed with their recitation skills. Fame and writing ability do not always translate into quality listening. The combination of good poetry with solid oral reading skills is the most desired recipe of all, it should go without saying.
The great Argentinian writer and poet, Jorge Luis Borges, said: “Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently…Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song.” Indeed, poetry’s earliest form was in the mode of oral lyric poems, sung to accompany the playing of a lyre in ancient Greece.
Every first Thursday at Port City Café and Pub, here in Portsmouth, I host a poetry open mic night to carry on this ancient oral tradition. I am always eager to hear the variety of voices and styles of the poets. I also am quite impressed by the overall level of recitation. This area’s poets must be doing their homework.
Here are ten tips for good oral poetry performance: 1. Relax 2. Be familiar with what you are going to be reading (practice, look up pronunciations of difficult or strange words) 3. Understand your own poem (this will lead you to know which words to stress and where to pause or speed up in order to create a desired effect) 4. Choose shorter, more accessible poems (an audience’s attention can be taxed by poetry that is too complicated or lengthy) 5. Stand up straight and make some eye contact with the audience 6. Be familiar with the physical venue, the acoustics, and the sort of audience (for example, if young children are expected, you might not want to recite that searingly erotic love sonnet of yours) 7. Less is more (don’t force people to hear your entire life’s work; leave them hungry and looking forward to the next time you perform and not looking for the nearest exit) 8. Don’t over-explain your poem (a very brief introduction about how the poem came to you or why you chose to read this particular one, etc., is fine) 9. Err on the side of reading more slowly (poetry is tough stuff to comprehend on one hearing as it is) 10. Don’t forget to smile—and breathe.
The next poetry open mic night at Port City will be this coming Thursday, February 7, at 8:00 PM. I hope you will consider attending to share your own verses or to sit back and take-in the voices of our area’s talented bards.
Send poem submissions and correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org or Neil Carpathios, Shawnee State University, Dept. of English & Humanities, 940 Second Street, Portsmouth, OH 45662. (740-351-3478).