This blog isn’t subtitled “Updates on a Free-Verse Life” for nothing. It would be a lie to call it “Updates on a Rhyming-Couplet Life.” I’m about as devoid of rhyming as a guy can get.
Confession: When I listen to a poem, I often don’t even notice the rhyme scheme. Instead, I notice “pleasant sounds.” Somehow I feel a bit guilty about this, but without the visuals, I cannot “see” how these rhymes are lining up, and the slant rhymes vs. true rhymes get muddled in my head because I’m too busy listening for meaning to bother with the sounds. They’re more background music, in many cases darn good background music (elevators need not apply).
Of course, if I have a copy of the poem in front of me while the reader reads it, it’s a whole new ball game. But that’s seldom the case when it comes to poetry readings. It’s all on the ears.
As for the eyes, some listeners might wisely choose to close them. After all, some readers’ gestures and facial expressions can distract you from the meaning.
But here you are saying, “Hold on, Sir. Even with your eyes shut, you can be distracted–by the way the poet reads the poem.”
Point taken. But wouldn’t it be double jeopardy if the reader were both histrionic with the voice and overdramatic with the body? Lord.
What about quiet readers, you ask? It’s a trick some believe in: Read more softly and the audience will listen for your words harder. They’ll lean in.
But… what if you overdo your trick and speak so softly that even the most disciplined listeners miss words? In this way, both sotto and voce can amount to a trap (albeit a Latin one, which is lovely in its ancient way).
Maybe I should just admit it. I am an undisciplined listener. Exhibit A is this poem by Alice Oswald. I heard her read it on-line thanks to a link provided by my virtual Goodreads friend, Trish, on her blog, The Bowed Bookshelf. (Scroll down and give it a listen.)
I loved it on first listen, and I noticed how sonorous it was to the ear. But rhymed couplets? I whiffed on that observation.
Of course, you’re forewarned here, so the listening test is ruined for you. Still, if you’ve been to readings, you probably have learned to listen either two ways (unlike me) or one (like me). I listen for enjoyment and comprehension. I’m not, at the same time, mentally analyzing what’s going on with the poem.
Whether I am the exception or the rule, I cannot say. How about you?
Note: After following the above link for a listen, enjoy Oswald’s poem below. It’s taken from her book of the same title, published by W.W. Norton & Company.
8 thoughts on “Listening Two Ways at Poetry Readings”
Falling Awake is a brilliant collection of poems.
Glad you liked her book. Until last week, I didn’t know who Alice Oswald was.
She’s from Devon in the south of England. A nice place to live. Very idyllic moorland, you can see it in her poems.
Yes, I appreciated most her nature writing…
I loved Oswald’s reading of her poem, “A Short Story of Falling” and thank you for the link. I think I would not have liked the poem so well if I’d only read it on the page. The rhyme, coming at the ends of the lines, in my own mind’s ear would probably have become too insistent and hence distracting. Oswald’s own reading, though, allowed these features to operate much more subtly. The difference between the spoken and written poem is probably greater than we usually think.
When I hear a poem read, I don’t listen for the rhythm or rhyme (and don’t think we should be mentally analyzing the form of the poem), but I think that both meter and rhyme — even when very subtly embedded in the poem — work at an unconscious level and help to hold the poem together, as well as to make connections and highlight associations within the poem. I also appreciate so-called free verse as much as formal. I say “so-called” because I think it’s never free of tradition and gains its effects through other kinds of patterns and associations.
I often incorporate internal rhyme in my own poems. I’ve even, once or twice, written a sonnet and then broken it up so that the form wasn’t obvious and the rhyme internal. Also, I’m especially drawn to poets who use rhyme without strict meter (Eliot’s “Prufrock”). Or any meter — uncommon, but done. Paul Muldoon is one poet who comes to mind.
Great comment, and I agree about the unconscious level bit (maybe because I am so often unconscious with my eyes open). Love “Prufrock” but could never warm to Muldoon. Of course, during his reign at THE NEW YORKER, he could never warm to my poems, either. (A little humor for you….)
I fell in love with Alice Oswald’s poetry when I heard this podcast from the CBC:
She reads a number of her poems and speaks about her process.
A wonderful reader and, yes, someone whose poems are intricately formal and yet sonically beautiful.
Than!ks for sharing that link, Johnny