Black on White

. . .vs. . . .

Spoken Poetry

Part I

Spoken poetry shaped and amplified by the voice as a process of Performance has been with us for as long as the history of the human voice. In the educated Western world we think of a poem as a printed impression on a page of paper, and we are accustomed to read it in silence. Our mind threads its way through the ideas, the images and to a lesser degree the acoustics which the printed words suggest. If as a teacher I read a poem to my class, they will regularly ask to see the printed page to make the meaning more clear. For them the black marks on white paper represent poetic reality, while the acoustic reading of the words with the sounds of our language confuses the perception of the poem. In other words, for most of us Poetry is a non-acoustic reading-art.

Our daily use of speech for conversation, communication and instruction might be considered a kind of shorthand in that it uses language in a compacted and efficient way without the details of musicality and speech as an art. Going one step further in our quest for efficiency, we can remove the texture of sounds entirely, and converse with each other in a series of written notes on paper, or finally in 'zeros and ones' convertible to phonetic letters on a screen. This is quick and efficient, its suits our daily lives in a fast-moving business-style world. But it does not suit the thoughtful hours of a contemplative life, where the various Arts bring us back to the spiritual side of our nature, where we can use our minds in the full range of our in-built capacities.

But there is a world-wide tradition of spoken acoustic poetry, which has been close to human experience from ancient days, existing long before writing in its various forms began appear. We still find a corpus of spoken poetry all around the world, partly in countries which do not have a regular use of written code but also because it is more expressive than an any writing code. Whether in Persian, Arabic, Swahili or Tibetan poetry, ancient or current in our modern world , the spoken word has a special force and value which makes words bright, brilliant and alive.

Automatic reading of any document from a sheet of paper is one of the least interesting experiences which an audience can find; but read aloud with good pauses in a suitable tempo, a reading can immediately become engaging. We know the difference from our classroom experience, from our TV political speakers and from our friends, some of whom are most engaging in telling the plot of an ordinary story, while others have no performaqnce skills even in conversation, and are virtual bores. We immediately feel the difference!

Reading throughout the Greco-Roman ancient world was always oral and "out loud", even when it changed from early phonating of a line of text in the Archaic Period, to a later natural voicing of the words in a written document as an essential part of their meaning. The idea of a Word always meant something involved in the process of speaking and of acoustic Speech. When a 4th c. educated Greek read his Plato for himself, he had to speak out the carefully cultivated and manicured sentences with their artistically arranged cadences and matched choice of words. One day when Vergil was to read a part of his fresh Aeneid to the court of August, he had a cold and a sore throat, and the Prime Minister Maecenas started to read the passage aloud for him. The poet listened but stopped him short and said he was missing all the nuanced details. Sore throat and all he continued with the reading himself. Centuries later when St. Augustine was reading for himself in private, some brothers passing by his room were amazed that he could be reading and moving his lips with the text, but no sound came out. A change toward silent reading was probably just beginning at that time, partly in respect for monastic quietude, partly for speed and efficiency in a less private personal world.

The poetry of the ancient world was always in an oral and acoustic form. It has survived bringing us an enlivingly acoustic art; so how did we in our time fall into the habit of reading poetry silently ? The poetry of the Greek Archaic Period had been all oral . The writing with the Phoenician borrowed characters was hardly familiar enough for full artistic use in the 8th century. But by the 6th century BC the Greeks moved into a new arena of political and cultural activity in which writing was found to be needed for new and fast growing populations. Copies were needed for the performance of the classic Greek Drama, for the brilliantly sung Odes of the poet Pindar, as well as the documentary materials of a historian like Herodotus. As Greek schools appeared, they had to have papyrus copies for instruction, and by the third century BC vast libraries like those at Alexandria kept paper copies of everything that was known in a vast library storage system.

The "Book" became the important item because it was readable and copyable and sendable anywhere, and it could be used by anyone who had learned to use a simple phonetic alphabet. Books were open to the common man, to Jews reading the Hebrew and Greek LXX in 200 BC and to Christians reading the gospels a few centuries later. St Paul could speak convincingly to any Christian audience, but his Letters were better since they could go anywhere.

In the later 14th century the western world of the Renaissance discovered the copies of ancient Latin authors which the monks of the Christian tradition had re-transcribed by hand on parchment sheets replacing the papyrus rolls of antiquity. The tradition of the written word was re-established from monastery library MSS. but it soon was aided by an invaluable accessory of the Gutenberg printing press, combined with an improved paper-making industry. In the deluge of books of every size, style and content, Europe became the New Alexandia of the world. By 1500 Greek was rediscovered in the West and there were now two classical languages and as many current languages as were nations throughout Europe. In this deluge of printed-paper knowledge and art, who had time to read aloud? Even the old academic Lectures in the great Universities became peripheral since everyone could read everything and get the clearest meaning directly.

The printed-page reading tradition persisted into the succeeding centuries, and the art of sensitive interpretative reading of Poetry was replaced by a conveniently quiet personal perusal. When someone asks you today for a copy of the poet you have just read aloud, saying that he can get the meaning better that way, this is clearly in a tradition going back millennia to the Hellenistic schooling of the Alexandrine days. In our efforts to comprehend the tsunami of the book wave in which we live, we have preferred the book to the performance, and sacrificed sound to simplicity. In this way we have lost the most vital side of the Poetic Art, which is its sound.

On the other side of the equation, would we want to silently 'read' the score of a Beethoven Sonata as the ultimate aim of music, hardly concerned with how the sound might turn out in a performance? Would we delight in a choreographic score as somehow clearer and finer than a dance performance?

Part II

You might ask why I discuss these things is such detail, and exactly where I am going with this thread.

Now that we have Internet access and recording techniques for use on the web, there has been a consistent flow of recorded "Poetry Readings" on the web. There are thousands and thousands appearing over the years, more than most people would have suspected. Most of these are recordings of the poet reading his own poetry, only a few are interpretative readings but these are quite rare. When we reach out to download a "reading" of a poem, we expect it to be familiar in the manner of our daily speech, which in America is generally of a flat and pedestrian character. Recording from print is a facile process, speaking through a microphone is easy to do, all it requires is an educated voice with a sheet of printed poetry, and a good recording studio.

We want the simplest access to the author's desk, a sense of how the poet might have read the poem to a friend when looking up from the page on his desk. We do not generally expect a full-scale rich and dynamic interpretative reading, and may even say that it takes away from getting the poet's basic meaning. If the voice sound is fairly clear and untouched by surprises of timing or tone, that seems to be what the modern "silent poetic generation" really wants. And from hours spent cruising about the poetry pages on the web, I can confirm that a flat reading is pretty much what he actually gets.

Some poets write good if flat poetry which you really cannot intone. Others write bad poems on "my thoughts" which are flat and you would not want to exfoliate. But there are also poems replete with wonderful acoustic intuitions, with sounds inviting and even demanding acoustic interpretation, and rather than argue the case in academic fashion, I want to present a reading of Dylan Thomas' late and grand poem "Lament", here in just the first stanza of five quasi-modular parts which outline the life history of a very engaging if immoral old roué.

Here is the text but you should not look at until you have heard the interpretative performance:

When I was a windy boy and a bit
And the black spit of the chapel fold,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of women),
I tiptoed shy in the gooseberry wood,
The rude owl cried like a tell-tale tit,
I skipped in a blush as the big girls rolled
Nine-pin down on donkey's common,
And on seesaw sunday nights I wooed
Whoever I would with my wicked eyes,
The whole of the moon I could love and leave
All the green leaved little weddings' wives
In the coal black bush and let them grieve.

Stanza I

There are many passages in the best and worst of poets, which are inviting to try out with a variety of voice interpretations. Some will be satisfying, others just experimental efforts, and these will appear, with other writing on acoustics and the nature of poetry, together on this website Humanities page.

I am startled to find so little poetic interpretative effort appearing on the broad pages of the Internet, I feel that we have in general not been true to the acoustic and artistic nature of the world of Poetry. But as I finish this protreptic essay, hoping that it will catch fire with lovers of the Poetic Art, I think I can state with confidence that in terms of poetic acousticity: My Case Rests!

You can also hear the five stanzas streamed in sequence as the whole Dylan Thomas poem Lament

And there is further work on the late poems of Dylan Thomas in a new page

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College