Listening Two Ways at Poetry Readings

falling awake

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.


 “A Short Story of Falling” by Alice Oswald
It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again
it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower
and every flower a tiny tributary
that from the ground flows green and momentary
is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail
if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass
to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip
then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience
water which is so raw so earthy-strong
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along
drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song
which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

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