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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.

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.