Chapter Poetry

Reading and Listening

William Carlos Williams described a poem as 'a machine made of words', and in the first part of this chapter I want to look closely at some of these machines of words to discover how they are put together, how they perform as they do and why they are able to attract the attention of readers. As writers we need to learn how poems can be made by looking at certain examples of finished poems, finding out what kind of pleasure they aim to provide and how our imagination is being engaged. One peculiarity about poems is that they can exist in two places: on the printed or handwritten page; and in the air, as sound.

We hear poetry aloud at a live reading, on radio or television, as poetic drama on stage, or very occasionally as part of a film soundtrack. It can also be read aloud by readers in private. If a poem is read silently on a page, the reader can read at his or her own pace; he or she controls the reading and can repeat it or go back over passages within a poem. Most reading is of this backtracking sort, and many writers would probably hold that if this is the case then a vital link is missing: the link that connects poetry with the sound of a speaking voice. If the reading is controlled by an outside source—the actor or speaker reading to an audience—the audience is subjected to that control, and must listen or lose out. To read a poem aloud from the page enables it to come across as uninterrupted sound, and this at least is preferable to silent reading. Even silent reading can be voiced, but only if the reader is able to make the conversion from print to voice quality and to enjoy the words for their rhythms and echoes as well as for the shapes of lines on a page. Poetry offers both these forms of pleasure: its shaped figure and its voice.

Several writers have drawn attention to the quality of voice in poetry. Seamus Heaney writes about his work as rooted in the speech of his own region. D.H.Lawrence wrote poems reproducing the speech of his childhood background in north-east Nottinghamshire. The poet and dramatist Tony Harrison has experimented with poems which include phonetic symbols in the written text of his work, and which therefore demand that readers distinguish between forms of pronunciation. Printed, they look awkward; they challenge the whole idea of book poetry which Harrison was taught at school. Asking him to read Keats aloud in class, his teacher at Leeds Grammar School ridiculed Harrison's schoolboy Yorkshire dialect: 'stuffed with glottals, great lumps'. On the one hand Harrison was fortunate in having a teacher who did insist on the reading and hearing of poetry aloud, but on the other unfortunate in that his teacher also believed that a proper delivery required 'proper speech': enunciation, not dialect. It may be unfair to cite Harrison's teacher as an example of a common mistake, but in the minds of many people poetry has come to be associated with high culture, excessive formality and with making its first appeal to the trained intellect. Otherwise, it is slushy, sentimental, pretentious, self-pitying. Either way, the words of Sam Weller in Dickens's novel spring to mind: 'Poetry's unnat'ral'.

Of course it is quite possible to write poems that sound formal or sentimental, but those are qualities most contemporary poets and readers of poetry would denounce. There is also some cause for identifying poetic language as the very opposite of intellect and abstraction. Writers often prefer the notion of poetry as unrefined and primitive: the kind of language you learn before you learn how to reason and think in abstract concepts. The psychologist D. W.Harding wrote about conceptual thought as having an origin and infancy; it does not appear fully-grown from the start; the language of poetry deals with thoughts as they are 'in their dumb cradles'—that is, in their earlier stages of growth. The language as learned in childhood, language close to its dialect origin, therefore, exhibits more substance and stronger emotional power. Poetic language has a basic physicality; its sound-quality and sharply focused attention on what is immediate in the physical surroundings guarantees an appeal first to sensation. Poetic language offers language itself as a sensation; it makes language into texture and musical sound structure. Writing in dialect is one of the methods of drawing attention to the texture, and away from the abstracted meaning or message of a poem. Instead of the usual question 'What does it mean?', the preferred question should be 'How does it speak?'

We need to be sure of one basic point, however. Poetry is for everybody to hear, and for everybody to write. To enjoy reading Harrison or Heaney we do not have to do it with an accent. Fortunately, it is not necessary to have an Ulster background or use Harrison's awkward-looking phonetic symbols in order to write for the voice. Nor is Voice' the only means of enjoyment. As we shall discover, not all poems are written for the voice; some writers deliberately choose to shape their poems for the page; some choose to let their poems inhabit both these dimensions.

To insist on the voice is a partial but important and neglected truth. Here is a piece from Macbeth:

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