Monday, 2 December 2013

How to read poetry aloud without the audience wanting to beat you to death

I’ve been attending local poetry readings for over three years now, and, having had the chance to learn from my own and other people’s mistakes, I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. We all have our off-days, of course, and there’s nothing to be done about that, but here are 12 rules-of-thumb to save anyone thinking of taking the plunge and reading poetry in public from utter humiliation.  

1. Unless you are a professionally published poet, do not read your own poetry. That would be the worst idea on earth, believe me. You may think you’re the natural successor to Seamus Heaney, but nobody else will, and you will never be able to show your face in public again and may very well have to move abroad.

2. Do not choose overtly political poems. Remember: not everyone will automatically agree with the left-wing sentiments being expressed, and will resent your assumption that everyone reads the Guardian. My worst experience at a poetry-reading event was when a left-wing female read Carol Ann Duffy’s 2012 poem “Stephen Lawrence” (NB what follows is not - I repeat not - a parody):
Cold pavement indeed
the night you died,
but the airborne drop of blood
from your wound
was a seed
your mother sowed
into hard ground –
your life's length doubled,
unlived, stilled,
till one flower, thorned,
in her hand,
love's just blade.
Admittedly my embarrassment was somewhat alleviated when a late arrival threw open the door of the bookshop where the meeting was being held, inadvertently projecting the reader into the second row of the audience (by a strange coincidence, the latecomer was a former Daily Mail journalist). Unfortunately the reader, after some angry glaring, dusted herself off and started all over again from the top.

3. Be careful about reading poems translated from a foreign language. Unless it’s a long narrative poem or the translator is a talented poet in his own right, the result will often sound like vapid, generalised posturing of the “Freedom, we salute you!” variety.

4. Narrative poems work well. We all like stories, and it helps if your audience wants to know what happens next.

5. Choose poems whose meaning is immediately graspable (an exception can be made for difficult poems which are well-known – something by T.S. Eliot is usually acceptable, because your audience should have heard it several times before, but Ezra Pound’s Cantos are probably best avoided: no matter how good the poem, nobody will understand a word you’re on about at first hearing and will soon be wondering whether they’ve left the gas on or studying the food stains on your shirt).

6. Poems featuring striking and specific visual imagery snag the listener's attention and make them willing to engage.

7. Avoid anything whimsical or wry, especially if it’s a childhood favourite. A tale featuring, say, a jabbernut in the magical land of the munglie-wunglies may very well delight you, but the rest of us will have to have our toes surgically uncurled afterwards.

8. Don’t read anything in an American accent unless you are a professional actor or an American. All American poems can be read in your own accent, unless they’re in the vernacular – in which case they are best avoided.

9. Don’t suddenly SHOUT OUT phrases or words because they strike you as significant. Your audience will assume you’ve gone mad. (I remember one reader doing Hopkins's "The Windhover", who, for some odd reason, decided to bellow the words High there at the top of her lungs while pointing at the ceiling as if attempting to attract the attention of an invisble roofer.)

10. Humorous poems are best avoided. Very few “funny” poems are remotely funny, and even the genuinely funny ones should only be performed by a professional actor. (If you really must read a humorous poem, do not – under any circumstances – laugh while doing so: yes, we know you think it’s funny, otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen it.)

11.  Make sure you’ve read the poem aloud to yourself at least ten times before reading it in public. I remember actually moaning in pain as one regular reciter murdered one of the most beautiful of all the psalms by stumbling and fumbling her way through it as if she’d never previously clapped eyes on the damned thing. If you can’t be bothered to learn it, just come along and listen.

12. Don’t make eye contact with members of the audience unless you know the poem by heart: you’ll lose your place and have to spend several dreadful seconds finding it again. (Or, as has happened to me, you’ll catch sight of a member of the audience minutely studying the titles of the books on the shelf next to them or scanning the programme in the hope that the next reader won’t be as boring as you: this is lowering.)

I have another twelve handy tips to share with you, but I’ll leave those for another time.

No comments:

Post a Comment