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The poem, number four in John Berryman’s Dream Songs, shook me when I first read it (and still does), with its opening words: ‘Life, friends, is boring.’

You can’t say that, I thought, and read on: ‘We must not say so.’ That brought a chuckle, but the line is poignant, especially that ‘friends’, because Berryman was one of our literary friends who took himself away by self-murder. Yet he takes too, the words out of our minds, as he did here for me, and shows them to us. Of all jobs perhaps none is more the poet’s than that.

The ending of the poem is no less powerful: ‘…leaving/behind: me, wag.’ That double entendre, evoking the tail of the dog that has taken itself ‘considerably away’, but also casting the poet in the role of joker, echoes the poignancy of the opening ‘friends’.

In a quiet way this poem is all about isolation, and perhaps not of Berryman only, but of all of us who write, and wonder if can at all help us. The middle lines expand on that boredom. The poet’s mother charges that ‘Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no //Inner Resources.’ And Berryman does confess to the charge.

Yet the very iconoclasm of what bores him amuses and well as challenges us, for it is ‘literature’, and ‘especially great literature’. But not only that, Henry bores him too, ‘with his plights and gripes’, and Henry is Berryman’s proxy in the written world, and we all, in one form or another, must have our own Henries, who gripe and plight, and love ‘people and valiant art.’

There are lovely sounds in this poem, the half rhyme of ‘drag’ and ‘dog’, the stately unrolling of the lines, even when short, that refuse to jingle, but come down on sonorous emphases: ‘…., because I am heavy bored.’ And throughout there are not quite repetitions, like distorted echoes: ‘Peoples bore me./Literature bores me,…’ and beginning the next line: ‘Henry bores me,….’

There would be something sour, I think, about this poem, something of the Malvolio – except that Berryman does not threaten revenge on any of us, but only on himself. And that dog, abandoning him at the end, not only gives us the weak pun of ‘wag’, but is, of course, man’s best friend. Leaving the poem we wonder, will it leave us too, and as what? Here’s ‘Life, friends, is boring’ on YouTube

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReaders of my blog, and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshops, will probably have noticed me banging on about reading aloud.

Mostly I’m exhorting people to read their own work out loud, as part of the process of writing. Not just to gain listener response, though that’s useful, but also because passages that are difficult to articulate, that stick in your throat or lead you into the wrong tone of voice for what’s coming next, will probably be difficult to negotiate in silent reading too. Silent reading, to some extent, must be an exercise in imagined voices!

By reading aloud I don’t necessarily mean performing. Reading aloud might well be a performance, but the two terms, to my way of thinking, lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. At the performance end the actual words being read aloud will be of lesser importance than at the other – possibly of less importance to the listener, who may well have morphed into a viewer, than the visual and non-verbal audio stimuli that accompany them.

At the reading aloud end of the spectrum there is still a handful of techniques to be employed in the way the words are read: speed, volume, tone are three obvious ones, and of course, variations in these will influence how the words themselves are understood and responed to. When I read aloud there is much handwaving, shoulder heaving and facial contortion! When poet Josephine Dickinson reads aloud there is only the breathtaking purity of her voice.

All of which is a sort of preamble to suggesting that reading aloud has a lot to offer readers as well as writers. In particular I have been thinking of James Joyce [I’m contemplating running a series of reading/study session on Joyce later in the year – any takers????], who in the twenties and thirties, made a series of recordings, and particularly of his reading of the Anna Livia Plurabella section of Finnegan’s Wake. I found hearing Joyce read this particularly helpful in my own approach to what for most of us is a pretty daunting novel. I found a similar effect with poet John Berryman, whose work had seemed impenetrable to me until I heard him read it! – Literature ain’t only for the uber-clever among us ya know!

What I’m going to suggest however, is that hearing ourselves read aloud the work of authors we are silently reading can perform a similar function. The literary equivalent of ‘going a mile in someone’s shoes’, reading their work aloud can help not only with understanding what they meant, but also with getting a sense of what they may have have felt about their writing. More improtantly, it might also clarify , amplify perhaps, what we feel about their words.

I find James Joyce’s voice as thin and wiry, in those early recordings, as is his image in contemporaneous photographs, but it’s a voice I reckon I could catch if I practiced; perhaps to read a favourite passage, such as the last few paragraphs of his short story ‘The Dead’. Yet that would not be my preferred reading of it.

 

It is often pointed out that authors are not always the best, or even good readers of their own work. Are composers of music similarly disappointing, I wonder, when it comes to playing their own music? That authors do often read badly does not necessarily strip value from their readings, not to us as readers, nor to them as writers, but it does suggest that our own readings of their work might be as useful or even more useful, and dare I say it more enjoyable to us than readings in the original voice.

Giving voice to words that are not our own does not mean striving to replicate the voice of the original writer, but rather to create the voice that we think those written words evoke, or even demand. Just as a musician plays his or her interpretation of the written score, so we play ours of the written text, and this, even if only for us as individuals, is a worthwhile thing to do.