Saturday, November 10, 2018

Are Poets’ Spoken Voices Part of Their Art?

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.”

Allen Ginsberg
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.”

Adrienne Rich
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 the late, great 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. 

Ntozake Shange
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. 

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry