150+ essays on literary topics
Rule 1: Don’t.
Poems are better read than heard, better heard in your head than your ear. Your voice is bound to sound wrong because the sound of poetry is silent, the sound of an imagined voice, words remembered rather than heard.
Rule 2: If you must, don’t overdo it.
You want the listener to hear the words, not your voice. Anton Lesser, who reads poetry as if he were a guide dog for the blind, should be your model.
Rule 3: Read it in your head first.
This is not as easy as it sounds. It requires an effort of will and sustained concentration. The point is not to anticipate your reading of the poem, but to hear what the poem really sounds like. Read and listen. Don’t try to read it aloud until you’re sure you can hear it.
Rule 4: Remember it’s a poem, not a script.
Reading a poem in character is almost always inappropriate. A poem is neither a play nor a short story. The worst reading of a poem I have ever heard is Heathcote Williams reading Dante’s Inferno. The best is Anton Lesser reading Paradise Lost. It just isn’t necessary to put on a different voice for each character in an epic poem. Very few actors can resist the urge to dramatise.
Rule 5: Let it rhyme.
Don’t try to hide or disguise rhyme, as actors often do. If the listener can’t hear the rhymes (half-rhymes and internal rhymes as well as the ones that come at the end of lines) they might as well not be there. Make sure to give every rhyme its due weight. That’s a matter of judgement. Every rhyme, however subtle, should be heard.
Rule 6: Get the rhythm right.
Actors often read poetry with complete disregard for the rhythm, as if they want to make it sound more like everyday speech than poetry. If the poem has the rhythm of everyday speech, that’s fine, but not otherwise.
Rule 7: Take your time.
Read as if you were a chauffeur following a scenic route. The point is to give your passengers time to enjoy the view, not to show off your driving skills. Most poems need to be taken very slowly, so that the listener has time to grasp their meaning and appreciate the sound of the words.
Rule 8: Observe the historical conventions.
Don’t read old poems in new ways. Augustan poetry should sound august. Romantic poetry should sound romantic. The stylistic hallmarks of the age in which a poem was written should be the stylistic hallmarks of your reading. Hearing a poem should in that respect be like looking at a painting. A Vermeer always looks like a Vermeer. An Elizabethan sonnet should always sound like an Elizabethan sonnet.
Rule 9: Get the timing right.
Poetry, like comedy, depends on timing. Poets call it structure, but it’s the same thing. Think of the poem as a joke. Think of the last line as the punch line. Think of the lines that lead up to it as part of your routine. (This will be easy if the poem you’re reading is a sonnet, but it works for any kind of poem.) Look out for the pauses and make sure you get them in the right place or the whole thing will fall flat. That’s the closest it gets to acting.
Rule 10(a): Explain the rules.
Give your audience a copy of the poem. Tell them that your reading is an attempt to bring out some of the qualities you have found in the poem after reading it several times yourself. Explain that, if it sounds a bit flat, that’s because you don’t want the sound of your voice to come between them and the poem. Your reading is no more than a blueprint for theirs, an artist’s impression of what the poem will sound like when they read it in their heads. Tell them to imagine that they are in the science lab watching the teacher do an experiment. Ask them, when you have finished reading, what they noticed about the poem, what your reading brought out and what it failed to bring out.
Rule 10(b): Explain the protocol.
Ask the audience to observe concert hall rules, in other words not to applaud after each poem, but only at the very end. Better still, ask them to observe science lab rules and not to applaud at all. You could drive the point home by asking them to learn one of the poems by heart for homework. That should get a laugh. But it’s only when you know a poem off by heart that you see the chemical reaction taking place. Prose turning into poetry. Words remembered rather than heard.
The next literary essay, due on 13 November, is PEASANTS
The next entry in my Reader’s Diary is due on 6 November and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.
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