Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Why Every Poet Uses “Poet Voice”

Posted on | April 3, 2017 | 10 Comments

If someone came up and started talking a poem at you how would you know it was a poem?
– David Antin

If there is a style of reading that is widely held to ridicule it is the Poet Voice – a highly affected method that signifies “I AM READING A POEM”. While practioners of live literature may have their differences, they are united by their disdain for it. At least that is what I thought.

Firstly, not everyone means the same thing when they speak of Poet Voice. Those from a literary background often refer to poetry voice in the sense that is explained in this article by Rich Smith and satirised here by the comedian Andy Hamilton. It is a soft, breathy, rendering of the line that gradually descends in pitch with each stress before inflecting upward to mark the end of each line or sentence. If you need a real example, here’s Louise Glück.

I noticed that Spoken Word poets were also refering to Poet Voice, but this one was different in many ways to the literary poet voice. This one is perhaps best illustrated by Switch, the spoof Spoken Word poet from the comedy show, Cardinal Burns.

It’s similar to the other Poet Voice in the sense that the speaker is heavily emphasising each word, especially the word at the end of the line. But where the literary Poet Voice is distinct by its lack of passion, Spoken Word Poet Voice emulates passion without eliciting it.

So there we go, two kinds of poery voice. How quaint.

But it doesn’t end there. At a recent reading I noticed that a lot of the readers, younger literary poets, were delivering their work in a similar fashion. This wasn’t the dispassionate, slightly robotic Poet Voice of Glück. The poems were declaimed with a sense of restrained urgency – as if they were trying to catch someone’s attention while trying not to cause too much of a scene.

With these different ideas of poetry voice running through my head, I ended up confering with Tim Wells, who just happened to be working on an article about Poet Voice for his Morning Star column. “There’s more than one kind of Poet Voice” he confided in me and a little light bulb pinged to life above my banana curtains.

Case closed? Not quite. Now I was listening to every poet I could and taxonomising different kinds of Poet Voice. And that’s when it dawned on me: Every poet uses Poet Voice

Listen to any poet introducing a poem and then listen to them reading the poem. In every case you will notice a change in their voice. This gives you a sense of their talking voice and their Poet Voice. Sometimes the shift is subtle – poets that aim for a more natural or conversational aspect of their work such as Billy Collins or Spoken Word poets like Polar Bear. But the shift is there. In a sense they sound even more conversational when speaking the poem than they do when introducing it.

The difference between the poet’s natural speaking voice and their Poet Voice often says something about their ideas of poetry and how it contrasts or compliments natural speech. In the video linked above, Billy Collins accuses Yeats of having an inflated idea of poetry. By the same token, we could say that Collins has a deflated idea of poetry . Yeats saw poetry as heightened speech and read out his work in a way that distinguished this difference. Collins and many other mainstream American poets do the opposite.

Writing is not the same as talking. Anyone that has transcribed natural human speech knows this. Writing tends to flow from one idea to the next. It follows along a measured line of argument (though not always!).

Speech is a series of jittery expulsions of half formed ideas and abandoned trains of thought. As the Talk Poet David Antin demonstrated, talking is far more reflective of human thought, of what really goes on inside our heads. Writing is a wishful act in which we fashion images of how we would like to think and how we would like to make those thoughts known to others. A spur of the moment, spoken rebuttal will never match a carefully written response.

This is why a different voice is needed when reading a poem. This is why trained actors, accustomed to scriptwriters’ recreations of talk, often get it wrong when they try to inject a conversational tone into the reading of a poem that is not written in a conversational style.

I’m not defending the familiar, derided strains of “Poet Voice.” I am pointing out that it is not their artifice that renders them so ineffective or infuriating. The problem is that the Poet Voice has been adopted as a way of reading out any poem in order to signify that it is a poem. Rather than think about how they will read out a particlular poem, the reader falls back on an old technique and sticks to it. It is a sign that the reader is in autopilot mode.

Here’s some practical advice. When you read out or recite a pre-written text there will always be a change in your voice. This is your Poet Voice and you’re pretty much stuck with it. That said, you should always beware of becoming too comfortable with that voice, especially in the sense that it signifies that you are now sharing the received text. Know your work before you share it.

When I know my work, I can sneak in all kinds of modulations that keep the audience engaged. I quicken the tempo or slow down. I make little shifts in pitch and volume. I throw in a little gesture, or even better, become stock still.

When I don’t know my poem I take refuge in my poet voice and dial it up a notch. I frown and glare a lot. Every line I utter sounds like a threat. There’s nothing less engaging than a threat that’s repeated several times and leads to nothing. The reading ends with an exhausted poet and an underwhelmed audience.

Your Poet Voice may differ. But if you don’t become aware of it and if you don’t know your work, the results will always be the same.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

Gerry Potter – How Do You Respect F*** All? [NSFW]

Posted on | March 23, 2017 | No Comments

Whenever a news channel is slow to the scene for a big event, they appeal to the audience for phone camera footage. They sometimes remind viewers to have the good courtesy to hold their phones horizontally when filming. This makes the captured riot/terror attack/assassination/snowfall antics more amenable to the dimensions of your typical flat screen TV.

As much as some may sneer at vertical video, I can see why so many make it their format of choice. It is not intended for viewing on a flat screen TV via a news channel. It is intended for viewing from a phone – be it passing the original device from hand to hand or via social media. The vertical video has no aspirations for the validation or intervention of the mainstream media. It is peer-to-peer communication in its most literal sense.

Gerry Potter, also known by his Performance Poetry persona, Chloe Poems, uploaded this video during a week of rioting across England that followed the fatal shooting of Mark Dugan. It made up an early instalment for a series of videos he referred to as his Poetry Selfies. While the Instagram culture of today portrays impossibly aspirational lives or papers over the cracks with wafer thin platitudes, Potter speaks the bitter truth of Fuck All.

Fuck All could be interpreted in a number of ways – it could be meant in the common vernacular sense of having nothing but it could also be taken as “fuck everything”. Even the word fuck slowly loses its power as it is repeated. As the poem progresses it deflates from a cry of anger and defiance to a wounded growl of defeat. Formally, this poem could be seen as a list poem, but only in the sense that it argues that nothing we can conceive of can escape being corrupted by Fuck All. It implies that what seems at first glance to be a thread that binds all aspects of society together turns out to be a crack on closer inspection.

If the 2011 riots had uncovered anything it was a relentless nihilism at all ends of the social scale. Those at the bottom of the ladder had no ideological framework to channel their rage and frustration. The nihilism at the top manifested as a slow, blameless drip feed as the Coalition Government set about dismantling of the Welfare State under the guise of austerity.

With the state using surveillance powers to snoop email and social media, the riots were planned and orchestrated via BBM Blackberry networks that the Police couldn’t eavesdrop. Potter recreates the peer to peer aspect by using his phone’s front camera. No fancy filters are applied. The video sparks a contrast with the slick and polished Spoken Word videos that can be found on YouTube. This accentuates the DIY Punk ethic. In the same way that Punks published zines armed with nothing more than some photocopy money and a stapler – Potter uses the most mundane, everyday tech to dramatic effect.

By contrast, the mainstream media relied on God’s Eye helicopter footage or lingering shots of the smouldering aftermath. Many of the iconic images of the riots, such as Pauline Pearce’s rebuke of looters, were caught with phone cameras. As if to demonstrate the out of touch aspects of mainstream media, especially with the bullying of Darcus Howe, Potter states that the BBC are also Fuck All.

Potter’s voice is sonorous but grizzled, as if he has been out amidst the chaos for the past few hours, shouting his throat raw. The phone camera is held close, distorting his facial proportions, revealing the lines and blemishes that affect all middle aged men. His face fills the screen.

When watched on a tablet or larger screen this becomes intense and overbearing but when viewed on a small screen it seems candid and intimate. It almost evokes the old sci fi shows where characters spoke to each other from screens on tiny hand held devices. But this isn’t the gleaming Jetson’s future where automata enhance all human lives instead of rendering them redundant. It is a future where almost everybody owns a smartphone. A smartphone, but no property, no job, no education and no future.

That’s fuck all.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

Jean Binta Breeze – The Wife of Bath Speaks in Brixton Market

Posted on | March 16, 2017 | No Comments

There are two performances taking place in this video. The first is from the dub poet Jean Binta Breeze, recited towards the tiny black hole of the camera lens, constructed from many separate takes. The second performance is from the market itself.

Breeze adopts the persona of a Caribbean take on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. In the words of Tom Waits, she’s been married so much she’s got rice marks all over her face. The viewer that she pictures on the other side of the lens must be a relative stranger (otherwise they would know about her many marriages). At the same time, she is comfortable enough around this stranger to freely express her sexuality. The poem is funny and provocative.

Brixton Market, filmed in 2006, bustles about her. At one moment, she clasps her bosom and exclaims “What I do with my body is my own business!” – causing a woman to stop in her tracks and glare back in disbelief. Kids, kept close to their mothers’ sides, can’t help but to look back and smile. A bare chested gentleman double takes with genuine puzzlement at what is going on.

Others see her as a momentary obstacle – a young man with a bag over his shoulder storms past, clipping the poet’s elbow. Breeze shrugs it off without missing a beat. Most continue among their day to day affairs. Over the years, the market has seen far more perverse and boisterous public outbursts than this. If anything it is not Breeze’s performance that draws the odd glare, but the presence of the camera that she confides with.

In Live Poetry, An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance (a book that heavily informs my attitudes and teaching), Julia Novak defines this kind of setting as a borrowed space. A borrowed space is simply a setting that normally has another function, distinct from poetry performances. It could be a football pitch, an oil rig, a cave or a call centre.

There is something about the Brixton Market of ten years ago that makes me think that, as a space, it could not be borrowed. It was never a surprise back then to see someone singing, dancing, ranting or telling everybody that they were going to hell. Energy never stayed pent up for very long.

The tension between the market itself and Breeze’s performance is due to her not sharing her energy with the space. She is sharing it with us and all the other viewers distributed across space and time. From our vantage point, the market is the backdrop that frames Breeze’s generous and brave performance. From the vantage point of the market, she is sharing her energy with the camera and the camera is a gateway to countless outsiders. Perhaps this disconnect is intensified because Breeze’s dialect is one of the most recognisable of the many languages that were spoken at the market at the time.

Most performers would get the jitters performing in any kind of borrowed space but Breeze shines. We only get a sense of nerves at the end when she lets out a laugh that seems to exclaim “What the f*** did I just do?”

Today, Brixton market, at least one side of it, has become a haven for gentrifiers. As the old cash and carries and old school butchers and fishmongers were priced out by rising market rents; single origin coffee bars, organic delis, even champagne and cheese emporiums have coloured the area affluent and much, much whiter.

So goes the dialectic of displacement – rough becomes edgy, edgy becomes vibrant, vibrant becomes desirable.

Maybe the time is ripe for someone to call Jean Binta Breeze’s agent and get her back down to recite this poem amongst the hipsters, yummy mummies and creative freelancers?

Would their mouths gape open? Would they remain as aloof as they normally are to the old locals? Would they call the Police? Or would they raise up their phone camera – a clutch of little black holes peering blankly and blamelessly at each other?

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

Allen Ginsberg – Ah! Sunflower

Posted on | March 6, 2017 | 1 Comment

When I started out as a lecturer, one aspect of modern academic life disconcerted me. As I fumbled through my sophomore powerpoint presentations, I noticed that most students’ faces were illuminated by their laptop and tablet screens. I soon learned the difference between the attentive frowns of those that were making lecture notes and the fixed half smiles of those checking their social media feeds.

My stepdad, a man with considerable teaching hours behind him, overcomes this issue by using a clicker to change slides while standing at the back of the room. That way he can see what’s on every student’s display.

I didn’t adopt that strategy, but I found a video that helped in making students more aware of their present environment and how digital media can dampen that awareness.

In this excerpt from the Ah! Sunflower documentary, Allen Ginsberg sits in a London garden and delivers a short address to the viewer. In the same way that Pauline Pearce’s rebuke of Hackney looters gained a new significance when it became a viral video – Ginsberg’s speech gained a new level of relevance in the digital epoch that took place after his death.

Ginsberg begins by describing his immediate physical state and then reminds the viewer to become aware of theirs (-transcript from The Allen Ginsberg Project):

If you will keep your mind on the image that is in front of you, which is my face in the camera or in your tv tube or screen (tv tube) and realize (now) that I’m looking from the other side directly into a little black hole imagining that you are there,

In the 21st Century, the viewer isn’t watching this on a cathode tube television. There is more chance that the viewer is watching Ginsberg on a small glass rectangle, or possibly an interactive smartboard in a sterile academic setting.

Ginsberg muses on the nature of this act of communication.

and also imagining what would be possible to say that would actually communicate, through all the electricity and all the glass and all the dots on the electric screen,

Ginsberg speaks with a low, animated tone from his serene garden setting. He points to himself and then to the camera to differentiate between his me and the me of the viewer. He then makes a number of frenetic gestures to imply the physicality of the media that convey the message. He has already signified the screen or “TV tube” with the hand gesture we often use to signify closed gates or doors. He invokes electricity and glass with the same gesture of opening his hands and quickly bringing them together, signifying a kind of compression. The dots on the electric screen are signified by a series of prodding finger gestures – as if he is making those dots himself.

so that you are not deceived by the image seen but that we are all both on the same beam, which is, you’re sitting in your room, surrounded by your body, looking at a screen, and I’m sitting in my garden, with my body, with noise of cars outside, so that we’re, at least, conscious of where we are, and don’t get hypnotized into.some false universe of just pure imagery,

Ginsberg once again uses gestures to great effect, drawing a curved line with his finger around his own face when speaking of the “image seen”. Pointing gestures continue to differentiate between “me” and “you”. Hocus pocus gestures signify “hypnotised”. He waves his hands up and down to signify the “false universe of pure imagery”. The basic message of all these words and gestures is: I am here picturing you. You are there watching my image. We must not become distracted or entranced by all the processes that come in between.

Here, with this deceiving image and false universe of pure imagery, Ginsberg is speaking from a quaint familiarity with television and cinema. He surely couldn’t be aware of a universe of pure imagery that incorporates Virtual Reality, Clash of Clans and Snapchat. He surely couldn’t be cognisant of a deceiving image that can call out, or buzz in your pocket, when it demands your attention. He states again that only an awareness of our mutual environments in conveying or receiving the image can save us from this grand deception:

you’re taking the film in front of you as an image, with a grain of salt, as an image rather than a final reality, and so you don’t get deceived by either my projections or the projections of the newscaster who will follow

Doesn’t this perfectly describe the digital world and the willing deception that it enables? It hinges on mutual acceptance of a phantasmagorical realm, an imaginative world that unites the content provider and the content consumer. Both are complicit in the denial of the real world.

There is something startling in that, when confronting my immediate now while Ginsberg confronts his – we are both living in the present despite our experiences of the present being a half century apart.

On another note, this video has helped me to deal with my own particular issues about being filmed. I’ve always been comfortable around audiences, even audiences that don’t like me, but I’ve never been comfortable with cameras. There was something disconcerting about that “little black hole” that was the camera lens. Now I can simply remind myself that I am not performing to a machine, I am speaking to the person of the other side, in their own world and their own body.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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