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A recent editorial bemoaned the fact that poets ‘can’t’ read their own work these days – can’t read it well that is. If that’s true, might the reason be that we’ve been persuaded – or at least some of us have – that the poem is a thing of print and writing, rather than sound, and speaking.

Writing, that oh so useful recording system for saving the memory (dumbing down you might call it), has been confused with the practice of putting words together, and perceiving them that way. The solitary, silent imagined-voiced reader has (or perhaps had for a while) supplanted the hearer of the real voiced speaker. And as we consume our poetry that way, so we begin to think of producing it that way too. Gone is the voice music that made poetry memorable, and that brought emphasis and meaning in the right place, and in the right tone of voice and at the right volume, tempo and pitch. If you haven’t written with that in mind then you will have difficulty foisting it on whatever you have written. And if the rhythm, and the stresses are broken or absent, or inconsistent (or inappropriately consistent) then read out loud – never mind the whistles and bangs of a performance that will distract us from, rather than focus us on the words – the language will be broken too.

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet, told me once, that the length of his lines was mostly controlled by the stretch of his breath. A reminder, perhaps, that poetry is of the body’s making as well as, and maybe more so than, of the intellect’s.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the experience of hearing someone attempt to read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem as if it were a ‘rap’. It wasn’t a rap, though, and hadn’t been written as one, and it fought back, imposing its own rhythms and music on the reader. Though not the intended ‘liberation’ he might have been expecting, it was a useful lesson, at least for this listener, in the power of a good poem to fight its corner, and win.

It goes almost without saying that when I’m writing prose fiction, let alone poetry, I do so with the intention that it should be read aloud. Even when I’m writing essays I take account of how they ‘read’ – and by that I mean how they read out loud. Do they roll off the tongue smoothly, powerfully, and coherently? Or are they fragmented, disjointed, jerky. Do they stick in the throat and choke the reader? Do they run out of breath and mangle their meanings? If you can’t read out a piece of your own writing well, you’re taking a hell of a gamble on whether a stranger – who has no idea what you are trying to say, but only what you have said – is going to be able to, whether in a voice that is being imagined or one that is real. It’s not just about your competence as a reader, but about the piece’s readability.

When I get my copies of poetry magazines, short story collections and journals though, I have to confess, I don’t read ’em all out loud! Words in the mouth and in the ear might still be the home of language, but the ink mark on paper (or its digital equivalent) makes a good holiday residence.