Or maybe our title should be: Let’s To listen more poetry. There was a time, but not so recently, when people liked to recite poetry. This could be in clubs or conferences, schools and libraries, even in a home setting. The thing is, reading poetry and reciting poetry (or hearing it performed) are two different experiences. This is why this section always offers both.
I am a strong advocate of the expression of poetry. It deepens understanding and engagement with the text. He accentuates rhythms and rhymes, finds music and color in words. The performer becomes a poet.
To be sure, there are poems that thrive when read silently, perhaps while you sit in front of a blazing fireplace. Here is the opening of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Gray.
The curfew sounds the death knell for the farewell day,
The roaring herd winds slowly on the leaf,
The plowman walks painfully towards the house,
And leave the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glittering landscape on view,
And all the air that a solemn silence contains,
Except where the beetle rolls its humming flight,
And drowsy tinkling cradles the distant folds.
On the other hand, here is the catchy beginning of a poem by Robert Browning. It screams to be read aloud. Preferably standing.
I jumped into the stirrup, and Joris, and him;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, the three of us galloped;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the bolts of the door were loosened;
‘The rapidity!’ echoed the wall galloping through;
Behind the closed postern, the lights have collapsed,
And in the midnight we galloped abreast.
Not a word to each other; we kept the good rhythm
Neck by neck, stride by stride, without ever changing places;
I turned around in my saddle and tightened his straps,
Next, shorten each stirrup and set the straight spike,
Buckled the cheek strap, chained the bit lazy,
Nor galloped less solidly Roland a bit.
Roland is the horse.
* * *
Pause for an opinion. Beware of any poem or song with the word “Hi”. It’s not for sitting still. Do you remember the scene from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”?
“The door opened from the inside. Light jumped out the door, escaping from prison at 186,000 miles per second. Fifty middle-aged Englishmen came out. They were singing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”.
* * *
Now, I don’t want to be too simplistic. A booming poem can be quietly enjoyed in the ‘No Talking Please’ area of the public library while a quiet word can be spoken aloud to great effect wherever your friends gather. I happen to prefer the latter. Allow me to share two of my favorite pieces.
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Walt Whitman frequently wrote in the first person and often with patriotic pride. This poem from “Leaves of Grass” is great for recitation. I do not get enough.
I hear America sing, the various songs I hear,
Those of the mechanics, each singing their own as they should be cheerfully and loudly,
The carpenter singing his while measuring his plank or his beam,
The mason singing his own as he prepares for work, or leaves work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the sailor singing on the deck of the steamer,
The shoemaker sings sitting on his bench, the hatter sings
as he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the plowman leaves in the morning,
or at the midday intermission or at sunset,
The delicious song of the mother, or of the young woman at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him and no one else,
By day what belongs to the day – by night the festival of young people
jolly, robust, sympathetic,
Loudly singing their strong melodious songs.
* * *
I have always thought that among the great “modernist” poets, the works of TS Eliot lend themselves particularly well to reading aloud. It’s probably because Eliot was also a playwright, and Eliot’s poems that became the musical “Cats” amply prove it. Here are excerpts from his famous monologue, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.
Nope! I’m not Prince Hamlet, and I wasn’t supposed to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To pump up a progression, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, happy to be helpful,
Political, careful and meticulous;
Full of high phrase, but a little obtuse;
Sometimes, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, sometimes, crazy.
I’m getting old. . . I’m getting old. . .
I will wear the bottom of my pants rolled up.
Should I part my hair behind? Dare I eat a peach?
I’ll wear white flannel pants and walk on the beach.
I heard the sirens sing, each to each.
I don’t think they will sing for me.
I saw them ride out to sea on the waves
Combing white hair with blown back waves
When the wind blows white and black water.
We lingered in the rooms of the sea
By daughters of the sea crowned with red and brown seaweed
Until human voices wake us up and we drown.
* * *
Of course, the poet has control of the page, as they say, and in the following case, ee cummings wanted his poem to be treated specifically in its printed form. He stubbornly resists the recitation:
But in our video below, the same poet presents a political tour de force that needs to be shouted. Not a piece of reading at all.
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A beautiful recitation can enhance a poem, but bad poetry doesn’t win by being read aloud. Quite the contrary. For over a hundred years and even during my lifetime, schoolchildren were expected to perform a singularly gruesome poem by an English writer named Felicia Hemans. I will offer you three stanzas if you promise not to interpret them.
The boy stood on the burning bridge
From which all but him had fled;
The flame that lit the wreckage of battle
Shined around him on the dead.
The flames rolled – he wouldn’t go
Without his father’s word;
This father, fainting in death below,
His voice is no longer heard.
There was a clap of thunder–
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask the winds so far
With fragments littering the sea! –
* * *
By the way, do you know which American poem is played aloud more than any other by far? Trick question. Well, it’s a poem called “Defence of Fort McHenry”, better known now as “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It was written in September 1814 by Francis Scott Key, then set to the melody of an English drinking song.
You’re all expected to know the first stanza, but the fourth stanza is just as good:
O so be it always, when free men stand
Between their cherished homes and the desolation of war.
Blessed with victory and peace, heaven save the earth
Praise the Power that made and preserved our nation!
So we must overcome, when our cause is right,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph will fly
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
A little early, but happy 14 July!
* * *
VIDEO. Our poetry readers offer three presentation examples. First, a cliche-laden political speech (actually a sonnet) by ee cummings that simply needs to be read aloud. Then a contemplative piece by Longfellow that can rest happily on the printed page. And finally, a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes that invites a group presentation with parts for everyone. Listen to the words.
CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR THE VIDEO: LISTEN TO HIM FOR POETRY!