September 17, 2013 § 5 Comments
Next month I’m going to be taking part in a long poem reading. When the idea was floated, the three poets involved – Matt Clegg, Fay Musselwhite and myself – spent some time discussing the challenge of reading longer work to a live audience. The greater thematic scope, variation (of rhythm, voice and register) and simple length of time puts greater – and different – demands on the audience (particularly in a culture accustomed to listening to shorter poems) – and therefore on the poet / reader.
I think there are two principal characteristics of the long poem which influence how it is read to an audience. The first relates to subject matter and the narrative arc. A long poem will generally describe – or accrue – a narrative: it relates something happening; or something happens. However, whereas the narrative in fiction aims to engage the audience through the matter of what happens, it works differently in the poem. The primary focus is not on what the subject experiences, or how they respond, but on the ways of describing or defining experience. Despite the gravitational pull of the story, the poem resists, holding itself in its own orbit.
The second characteristic is, to extend the metaphor, the path of the orbit: a calibrated course which seeks to find a balance between the deterministic fall into atmosphere and the drifting away into chaos and obscurity. What holds it here is music – the organisation of sounds into patterns. These may be extremely subtle: echoes of rhythm and rhyme; but their resonance in the ear builds a recognition, subconscious sometimes, which captures the attention.
I think the impulse when reading a long poem is to seek to introduce the themes and, to an extent, the narrative. We worry that our long inhabitation of the poem might encourage us to forget that, often, an audience is encountering it for the first time; and so we consider how we might indicate markers and wayposts to guide them through it. This may well be a factor. When hearing sequences of words, we expect intelligibility – and often we privilege causality. Personally, I reflect on how I came to understand ‘The Waste Land’: not by reading the notes (which is where, baffled, I went first); but by listening to the sounds: words aspiring to the condition of music, as Eliot said elsewhere. If we can trust the poem, then we can trust to the audience’s readiness to listen in this way, without glosses, so that its impact can first begin to develop out of an aural rather than a cognitive sensibility.
Longbarrow Press presents ‘Street Haunting’ – Narrative Poetry with Matthew Clegg, Rob Hindle and Fay Musselwhite, The Fat Cat, Sheffield, Sunday 27 October, 7.30pm, £3 on the door. Part of the Off the Shelf Festival of Words 2013. www.offtheshelf.org.uk