Niall O'Sullivan

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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.


10 Responses to “Why Every Poet Uses “Poet Voice””

  1. niallosullivan
    April 3rd, 2017 @ 9:55 am

    I should add that “knowing your work” isn’t necessarily the same as memorising it. You can memorise your poem and still squint at the phone screen at the back of your head while reciting it. At the same time, you can know your poem while still relying on “external memory” to access it. Subject matter for a future blog methinks.

  2. Rachel
    April 3rd, 2017 @ 11:38 am

    Do you think there’s also some inherent link with music? A nexus between speaking and song?

  3. Lee Nelson
    April 3rd, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

    I do NOT use POET voice
    I use a VOICE that DRIVES my poem
    On through TRUTH to FURther truth beYOND truth
    The spaces in-be-TWEEN my words are spaces where
    TRUTH can accRUE
    So NO i DO not use POET voice
    I use POet voICE
    or the SAME THING inside OUT

    So, is there a way to write to be read in one or other of these voices? Maybe full phonetic transcription with rhotacized schwas and all that jazz?

  4. Helen burke
    April 3rd, 2017 @ 2:57 pm

    Just wrote a poem called that poetry voice. ,! Taking the mick. Have been reading for 40 years … hope i have never used that voice. Terrifying how it continues to breed !

  5. Phil Brown
    April 3rd, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

    Great post man. I think the Poet Voice only becomes completely jarring when it is obviously an inauthentic persona based around the idea of what poets should sound like. Poet Voice is fine when it is clearly an extension of the poet’s genuine self. It’s the same with teachers- the best ones are the ones whose ‘Teacher Self’ is a close relative of their true self- maybe with better manners. It should always try to be an expression of something true rather than impression of Dylan Shitting Thomas.

  6. niallosullivan
    April 4th, 2017 @ 8:52 am

    Hi Lee, there’s a chapter in Live Poetry: An Integrated Approach to Performance by Julia Novak called “Audiotext”. In part of it she looks at methods of transcribing performance that make allowance for changes in pitch, tempo and emphasis/volume. I don’t see why it could also be used the other way, to show how a poem could be performed.

  7. niallosullivan
    April 4th, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    Hi Rachel, there’s a good book by Steven Mithen called The Singing Neanderthals that investigates a theory about the common origins of song and speech. Well worth a read. The line between the two is certainly blurred in many oral cultures where the terms “speaker” and “singer” are interchangeable.

  8. niallosullivan
    April 4th, 2017 @ 9:02 am

    Thanks Phil. Yes, It totally get that with the different voices. It’s interesting how a voice we use in one social situation is judged as an affectation whereas a voice we use in a less formal setting is assumed to be authentic and genuine. I don’t really believe in a unified self so with that I also cast out any idea of authenticity with regard to the personas we adopt. I read somewhere that rather than see a persona as a mask, we should see it as the most important manifestation of self, it is an intentional act of projection to communicate with the world from the relative chaos and instability of the psyche. Or some kinda shit…

  9. Baceseras
    April 5th, 2017 @ 10:25 pm

    “Banana curtains”?

  10. niallosullivan
    April 7th, 2017 @ 6:34 am

    It’s a term Tim Wells uses to describe my current hairstyle. It’s not complimentary.

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