I recently spoke to a poet who said a surprising thing to me: “I don’t like going to poetry readings. I prefer not to hear a poet’s voice, because once I hear it, I always hear it in my head when I read their poems.” That amazed me, because that’s exactly why I do like to go to poetry readings. I enjoy hearing the poet’s individual and idiosyncratic use of the spoken language.
Can you imagine the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, for example, without that whiny, growly, funny, syncopated, and deeply tender voice of his? Here’s an example of Ginsberg reading his famous tribute to Walt Whitman, “A Supermarket in California.”
Who can conceive of the poetry of Sekou Sundiata without his soulful baritone, completely as musical as Charlie Parker’s solos, especially since Sekou chose to record and not to publish most of his poems. Here’s Sekou reading his irrefutable and still all-too-relevant indictment of racial profiling, “Blink Your Eyes.”
Or Adrienne Rich’s ringing voice calling out the powerful in her precise syllables, as exact and exacting as her diction and imagery and politics. Here is Adrienne reading her poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”
Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. Do we know what Shakespeare’s voice sounded like? Or Lorca’s? Not knowing their voices allows us the freedom to interpret their poems when they are spoken, just as a ballad singer can interpret “Fly Me to the Moon” her own way. Each singer sings it differently. That’s a good thing.
But even if we know the sound of a poet’s voice, that doesn’t preclude a great reciter from recreating the poem for herself. Think of the Oscar-nominated actor Alfre Woodard reinterpreting Ntozake Shange’s “Somebody Almost Walked Off Wid All My Stuff” in for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. Ntozake was a magnificent reader of her poetry, but that didn’t stop Alfre Woodard from reinventing the poem with her own voice, inflections, and choreography.
In the age we live in, where recordings can be preserved almost as easily as books, and maybe more permanently, a poet’s voice can be part of a writer’s legacy. And why shouldn’t it? In a way, that challenges writers to read their work more professionally and memorably. Isn't the sound of poetry what distinguishes it from the other literary arts? How sad that we don't know the timbre of Lorca's speech, since he lived in the age of recorded sound, but was assassinated before his voice could be preserved for all time.
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