Eating Poetry (XXXII) – The Colonel

by A. Jay Adler on February 19, 2011
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At Voice Alpha, they’re concerned with the art of reading poetry aloud for an audience (h/t Writing Without Paper). A little while back the discussion centered around the choice between reading or reciting one’s poetry. I offered the following thought about my own choice.

I don’t write my poetry to be performed, but to be read. It is, for me, a purely textual artifact, not a performance. I write it that way. There is expressiveness, of course, but not performance. Spoken word poetry often has declamatory, rhythmic, and rhyme features that are meant for performance. My poetry purposely lacks those features in the same manner on purpose, because I think outside of performance they are not desirable.

Another commenter provided a link to this compelling reading by Carolyn Forche of her prose poem “The Colonel.” On the subject of presentation, notice how Forche begins by reading, glancing down at the page periodically. Soon enough, as the dramatic moment the poem relates becomes more clearly compelling itself, Forche, until very near the end, ceases to read, as if taken over by memory of the experience, and begins not to read or recite the poem, but relate it, as the prosaic dramtic account it is in poetic nature. Even some minor rhetorical disjunctions that seem to exist on the page disappear in the completely dramatic narrative performance. See how Forche uses her hand, too, to enforce the sense of narrative relation.

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6 comments

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Nic Sebastian February 27, 2011 at 8:25 am

Hi Jay – quick query — “I don’t write my poetry to be performed, but to be read.”

When you say “read” do you mean “read silently in one’s head” or “read aloud with one’s voice”?

Best, Nic

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A. Jay Adler February 27, 2011 at 10:26 am

Nic, thanks for stopping by. It’s a good question, and I see a potential implication in it. What I primarily mean – in that statement – is the visual sense of “read,” those aspects of the poem that are significantly encountered primarily by the eye on the textual surface. Non-standard formatting, never mind a concrete poem, would be obvious examples. But I find that most poets in reading aloud do not even convey the line breaks, probably in fear of being regulated by them, as by rhyme. In a different sense, I don’t really see the reasonable distinction you offer as profound. One can “hear” the sound and rhythmic elements in one’s mind, though the reading aloud does make them more sensuously concrete and leads, along a continuum, to performance.

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Elli Davis February 20, 2011 at 11:17 am

I would like to add to the discussion on performance versus reading poetry. In my opinion it solely depends on the reader whether he has the ability of appreciation of spoken word and performed poetry. However I must admit that there does exist a special category of poetry that counts on being performed. It is Chinese poetry from the Tang dynasty. Apart from elegant rhymes emphasis was especially placed on gentle work with tones which turned out to be an unforgettable play of sounds that pleased every ear. I personally prefer reading poetry for myself in a silence and devour every word.

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A. Jay Adler February 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I agree that surely it is all a subjective preference, though I think we can identify objective differences in the public readings. Forche’s is mostly a recitation (from memory) and because of the conversational, reported quality of the situation in the poem works wonderfully in that manner and still serves the poem as an artifact. Performed, spoken word poetry, I believe, as the nomenclature states, draws attention at least as much to the performance and the performing self, for which the poem becomes more a vehicle of the performance and the persona, and less an art object in itself.

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Maureen February 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm

I enjoy Voice Alpha and Whale Sound (Nic Sebastian’s other blog) very much; quite a bit of good information gets exchanged on the former and the latter features some wonderful poetry.

The discussion on performance v reading was interesting. I have a number of friends who are spoken word artists; we often talk about their poems that are not written for performance and whether it’s possible to identify any differences.

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