Saturday, 7 February 2015

Oratorical Perfume

Matt Petronzio vents about the "poet voice":
When I was in grad school I'd meet my thesis advisor, Catherine, on Tuesday nights at a café on New York's Upper West Side. We'd sit together at a small table, where she'd have me read my fresh, newly written poems out loud.

It was an exercise to hear how the poems sounded, a way to help pinpoint any hiccups in the rhythm, line breaks and so on. (It also taught the regular café-goers that, yes, poets gather over black tea and read poems about death, just like you imagined.)

One particular night, I started reading a new poem—but I only got through two lines before Catherine stopped me.

"Don't read it like it's a poem," she said. "Read it like you're talking to me." In other words, read like a human.

Without realizing it, I had been talking in "poet voice"—that affected, lofty, even robotic voice many poets use when reading their work out loud. It can range from slightly dramatic to insufferably performative. It's got so much forced inflection and unnecessary pausing that the musicality disappears into academic lilting. It's rampant in the poetry community, like a virus.
Rich Smith describes the voice as "a thick cloud of oratorical perfume":
Poet Voice doesn’t just mess up the relationship between music and meaning at the local level of a poem. In the style’s unwavering wavering, it steamrolls tonal variation and charges every moment in a poem with the exact, same, energy. This sonic flattening happens in Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Theories of Time and Space.” (Start at 11:00 to get a sense of the difference between her speaking voice and her reading voice.) When one reads the poem in the rhythm offered up by the sentences themselves, the tonal shifts that move us from the wise-but-jovial beginning to the foreboding-epiphanic conclusion are revealed. The Poet Voice rhythm doesn’t fluctuate with the poem’s nuanced tonal changes, but rather sets the poem’s metronome at “high lyric” and lets it tick away.
Michael Carbert wonders more generally why readings have become something to be "endured instead of enjoyed":
The tiny, self-conscious audiences; the improperly set up sound systems; the readers who don’t know how to project or crisply enunciate; the forced laughter; the sheer tedium of it all. When readings are well-organized and the authors good performers, the result can be memorable. But this happens so rarely that I’m compelled to ask: what’s the point?

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