Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Is Poetry Only Meant To Be Read, Not Heard?

The past few years I have attended a number of poetry readings here in the Twin Ports, and even read in a few. I've appreciated most of these public readings and performances, and hadn't given much thought to the notion that written poetry and performed poetry might be in a very different class of experience. Until I read an early passage in rock critic Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin.

Even if you don't know who Ricks is, it doesn't take long to grasp that this is a man who is intimately acquainted with not only the full span of Bob Dylan's creative output, but its historical context as well, in relation to poetry and literature and performance as art. It was Ricks who was selected to edit the 2014 collection of Dylan's songs titled, The Lyrics, also writing the introduction for this 13 pound book.

Among his many distinctions, the British scholar was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford (England) from 2004 to 2009 and former president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has a reputation as a champion of Victorian poetry while simultaneously being an enthusiast of Bob Dylan. In short, he shares his unpredictable and astute insights with authority. (See his full Wikipedia profile.)

Sir Christopher Ricks notes that Dylan's words are only one element of his art. "Songs are different from poems, and not only in that a song combines three media: words, music, voice."

In a section designed to set down foundation stones for analyzing Dylan's work, he inserts a passage from the English poet and novelist Philip Larkin on the difference between a poem and a public reading, or a recorded reading.

"I don't give readings, no, although I have recorded three of my collections, just to show how I should read them. Hearing a poems, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much -- the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, take it in properly; hearing it means you're dragged along at the speaker's own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing 'there' and 'their' and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience.... I think poetry readings grew up on the false analogy with music: the text is the 'score' that doesn't 'come to life' until it's 'performed.' It's false because people can read the words, whereas they can't read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that is needed: the reader should 'hear' it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don't think it stands up on the page."

Whether you agree or disagree, I myself find the passage quite agreeable. I know that immersing oneself in a good poem is a luxury enjoyed best in an easy chair or some other quiet place, with no limits on time, at an unhurried pace. And there's something appreciate visually about the look of a poem on a page. I can't imagine what e.e. cummings would have done were his poems only shared at public readings. Not all poets excel as performers, though those who do seem to impress us. Maybe there are some poets whose oratory skills don't have the same flair as others. Let's hope they don't abandon their gift for writing verse just because of that.

For what it's worth, Ricks' book, now that I am deeper into it, is shaping up to be a very good read. If only there were more hours in a day.

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