The long poem’s orbit and the audience

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.



§ 5 Responses to The long poem’s orbit and the audience

  • Matt Clegg says:


    It sounds like I started to engage with The Wasteland in a similar way. Reading it aloud to myself and experiencing it as sound and rhythm. Once I worked out that there was no conventional ‘plot’ to follow, I stopped worrying so much about feeling disorientated.

    However, when reading Paradise Lost I have felt grateful for the plot summaries Milton offers at the head of each book. This must partly be becuase the plot of Paradise Lost matters much more than the plot of The wasteland. It’s interesting, though, how little space is required by Milton to summarise the plot and action in each book. I must confess, though, that I feel more confident about enjoying the poetry once I’ve grasped from the summary what action is taking place.

    When hearing a certain kind of narrative poem read aloud in public, I’ve often felt a similar gratitude to the poet who can prime me with a thin sketch of the plot. It helps compensate, if only slightly, for not being able to access the second, third, and fourth reading that the page allows.

    But I do find your idea that ‘the way something is related’ is more acute in narrative poetry; and the idea the a poem might resist its own matter or medium is certainly relevent to the piece I’ll be reading on the night.

  • Rob says:

    I agree Matt – Paradise Lost works with narrative in a more conventional way than The Wasteland, and we need to know who is who and what’s happening so we can enjoy the linguistic contests of the protagonists. But you also suggest that the necessity of an introduction depends on the ‘certain kind of narrative poem’ – and we can imagine how ludicrous it would have been for Eliot to have provided any kind of introduction (though given his mannered reading voice, I doubt he gave much thought to performance at all).

  • Matt Clegg says:

    Rob, I guess you’re referring to the prospect of Eliot reading The Wasteland in public. I’m having fun imagining who, exactly, would have been in that audience. Perhaps you’re right, and the idea of him giving an introduction is ludicrous; although I suspect I’m going to have more fun (privately) trying to imagine why. A poet with less cultural entitlement, however, might feel awkward about asking his audience to digest such a meal without warming the plate a little.

    I’m thinking, now, of the brilliant job Hughes does with Crow on the Faber Penguin audio-book version of that collection. Here his intros and additional context help make the experience of listening even more immersive; and certainly, they helped me gain deeper access to the concept and the structure of the work.

    But The Wasteland and Crow aren’t the kind of narrative poem I had in mind. When I heard Les Murray reading from his long, novelistic poem Freddy Neptune, he did offer thin plot sketches, and yes, I was grateful for them, even though I’d read the text before listening. Certainly, though, less is often more when priming listeners, and Murray had the good sense not to over-heat the plate.

    I understand the purist view that the poem should always speak for itself; and have experienced the numbing anaesthetic of the too long introduction (and maybe offered one or two!) But I do think the dynamics of listening/performance are different to the dynamics of reading the words on the page. I worry that being a purist in performance could be lazy or complacent. It could appear arrogant or inconsiderate. On the other hand, I don’t think there is any formula that should be applied. The reader/performer is always experimenting with bringing their poems to life and projecting the ideas that open up the doors that lead inside.

  • Rob says:

    You articulate the dilemma accurately, Matt. Hughes’ description of Eliot in District and Circle – like watching the prow of the Queen Mary come towards you, very slowly – was in my mind, as well as that voice (all of which undermines my argument for poets reading their own work in the latest post). I imagine it was like being in the audience of Pot Black. And there is the danger of complacency or arrogance, sure. So perhaps your sense that there isn’t a formula is, in the end, the right one.

  • […] short films by Brian Lewis and a discussion with the poets. Rob Hindle’s recent blog post, ‘The long poem’s orbit and the audience’, reflects on the shaping of the event. 7.30pm start (you are welcome to join us upstairs from 7pm); […]

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