In Praise of Poet Voice
Dan O'Brien Defends a Much-Maligned Performance Style
A friend texts me about Poet Voice. I’m out for a run in sunny LA and have to slow down. She’s sitting with her book club in Brooklyn and they want to know: “Why do poets read their work in that weird poetic monotone rhythmic thing?” She’s asking me because I write poems and, on occasion, read them out loud to people. “But you don’t do it [Poet Voice] nearly as much as others,” my friend adds, intending to soften the blow.
It doesn’t work; I feel responsible. I text her back that Poet Voice—a poet’s style of performing poetry, including not just the voice but gesture and that mysterious factor, presence—is a subject hotly and perennially debated. Seeking to defuse the question, and to defend myself slyly, I explain (again, over text; that is to say tersely, running slower still, a jog) that many poets conceive of their work as a species of song, of prayer, of incantation.
I am reminded—though I don’t mention this to my friend—of WB Yeats, often observed in the byways of Dublin and London walking and chanting to himself, working out the lines of his next poem. I am walking now myself. I assure my friend that poets hate Poet Voice too—perhaps especially their own. I end our exchange by asking her book club to pray for us.
My friend works in the theater, as I do when I’m not writing poems, and Poet Voice has its correlation—probably its foundation—onstage. Many years ago I acted in a play that required some rather aggressive eye-contact with the audience. I was one of an ensemble reciting a choral monologue in “heightened speech”—poetry, essentially. All that mattered, according to our director, was that we “only connect” (echoing Forster weirdly, a novelist and not a playwright).
We were each to select some poor soul who would, like it or not, receive our gaze and our highly unconversational words. I zeroed in on a middle-aged woman in the front row who was immediately and sensibly terrified. She dug herself in behind her companion’s shoulder; she arranged her fur coat around her body like a lead apron before a dental X-ray. Several moments into our connection—I hope that I never forget this—she squished up her face in a scowl and shook her head hard at me in an almost infantile expression of disgust.
Call it cringe, or vicarious embarrassment, those who attend poetry readings often feel like that woman in the fur coat in the front row. Why they cringe is the preciousness of the performance and, by extension, the supposed hubris of the speaker whose mannered style elides with some of the worst assumptions made about poets: we are preening, self-indulgent, melodramatic, etc.
There are two (certainly there are more) subgenres of Poet Voice: first is the “weird poetic monotone rhythmic thing” that I tend to interpret charitably as a poet’s bid for clarity. Just as newscasters relay their stories within formulaic parameters of pace and intonation, poets slide into the grooves of this inherited performance style in order to convey elements of the written poem that a listener might have difficulty hearing: line and stanza breaks, meter and subtler forms of rhyme.
The performer is both controlled and emphatic because poetry is, by definition, controlled and emphatic (otherwise it would be prose). In our text exchange my friend had elaborated a bit on why she dislikes this style: it drains a poem of emotion and flattens its arc. The poem’s dramatic power is lost.
This dimension of drama is more fully inhabited in a second subgenre of Poet Voice: the performance style that occurs in the context of so-called performance poetry, or spoken word—poetry that has been composed primarily to be seen and heard, and only secondarily (at least simultaneously) to be read. Performance poetry is often freer in form, and closer to the conversational in that it seeks an immediate engagement with the audience.
Because intimacy is combustible the language of the performance poem can achieve a kind of pyrotechnic intensity, and in this context it only makes sense that the poet emote unabashedly, theatrically. If the audience cringes it’s most likely a matter of taste or bias, or because the poet isn’t very skilled at this sort of thing.
But in any case, whether it’s a page-poem or a stage-poem—and of course all varieties in between and outside this admittedly artificial dichotomy—it strikes me that preciousness is the point. Each line, each word of a poem, means something and means a lot. The poet has arrived at their language, their idiosyncratic distillation of experience and imagination, at great cost of concentration, and we want our listeners to value our valuable object. It’s an accurate observation—why deny it?—that a poet is indeed behaving preciously as they read because the poem deserves to be handled by the body and the breath with uncommon care.
And what is precious in a poem is not firstly the craft or sensitivity of the writer, I don’t think, but the emotional, spiritual, philosophical implications that have been encountered and preserved in the act of writing. The words are first and foremost useful. This is why poets can learn a lot from actors and their approach to performing a monologue.
Among other things actors acknowledges the audience; they know they are telling a story. They pursue a want or need that necessitates the expression of these words, passing quickly though the poem’s linguistic byways to the monologue’s pivots, crevasses, and promontories of revelation. They do not mean to impress. They believe their performance can achieve a kind of transparency. They invite the audience to become them, to experience vicariously their movement through language toward vulnerability and, with any luck, moments of ineffable meaning.
As for me, when I read my poems out loud to people, I do my best to forget that I have written them. This improves my performance, naturally, but it also helps me tolerate my work’s flaws. I try to communicate what is precious to me—what the poem has revealed, not what I have created. If I hear the singsong monotony of Poet Voice creep in, as it inevitably does, or the hyperbole of an overly performative flourish, I steer myself back toward the colloquially adjacent, the quasi-conversational. I teeter and waver, over- and underplay. I walk that tightrope. As for the audience, I hope they connect with my poem and my poem with them. But I will never make eye-contact, at least not intentionally. This is my promise to you.