Rule one is make sure they can hear you at the back. The most recent reading I went to was fine on this score – there were microphones and it was a professional affair because this was the T.S Eliot Poetry Prize Readings (11th Jan 2015). However, I think perhaps the reason I was rather luke-warm in my reaction to the night is because apart from Hugo Williams’ proxy reader, Jeremy Clyde, and perhaps the natural gravitas of Michael Longley, there was no real pizzazz.
In previous years some of the poets at the readings have endeared themselves with the odd quip and their acknowledgement that the audience want to be entertained. Of course I am thinking about the ‘readings’ side of the evening, the way in which the poets deliver the work, the engagement with the audience and their presence on the stage. These elements are not the same as judging a poem on the page; I am well aware that not everyone is comfortable on stage and in the public gaze (writing poetry is an insular and sometimes solitary process).
I have heard poets whose work I admire kill a poem at a reading by being inaudible or monotone, and of course I have also been lulled into believing a poem of merit because the poet ‘sells’ the piece to the audience. One of the most enjoyable aspects of readings, I find, and something lacking at the Eliot readings (they only have 8 minutes each – I get that) is the chat between poems. Perhaps a line or two about the genesis of the poem coming up, or a prompt on what the poet was hoping to explore. I do not want the poem over- explained so that there is no room for me to find my own ideas, but often the listeners have to do a lot of work: hearing a poem for the first time, without visual reference to the text, can be demanding and so a little pointer from the poet can go a long way.
Being blessed with the voice of Andrew Motion is an added bonus for a poet but plenty would say other Poet Laureates are not the best readers of their own work. Have you heard Tennyson’s recital of ‘Charge of The Light Brigade’? You can find it here –
Tastes change and personal preference comes into all of this. I am not mad about Dylan Thomas’ reading voice – though he charmed America with it. However here I am being unfair since I’m thinking of Richard Burton reading Thomas’ work – now there’s a voice. Furthermore it is possible for a poet’s reading voice to dictate the way you read their work. I find it hard to read Simon Armitage without his voice in my head, and that goes for his fine prose too.I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not.
When I get the opportunity to do readings I think carefully about how I am going to take the listeners from one poem to the next, but obviously I need to keep the poetry at the forefront – if it tips into too much patter then I’m doing a disservice to the poems. I want the listeners on-side and so a touch of humour (poetry readings are often crying out for a glimmer of frivolity) never goes amiss.
Ultimately however, the biggest crime is not being loud enough. Fine- you are not an actor, you didn’t go to RADA and in fact you became a writer because it meant getting away from people – but if you are going to stand up and read your work at least SPEAK UP. And a smile that suggests you are happy to be there wouldn’t hurt.