Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Donald Hall on Poetry Readings

From an interview with Hall for the Woodstock Times, several years ago.

“Reading poetry aloud makes a difference in one’s relationship to one’s words,” Hall says. “When I started writing, I thought of poetry exclusively on the printed page, though I was always very much aware of the sound of words. Poe was my first influence, at the age of 12 – then Stevens, at 14. Even when I was writing with no sense of words to be spoken out loud, my throat would move as I wrote.

"But reading one’s own poetry out loud to an audience was unheard of back then. Frost did it. But Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore – they virtually never read out loud

 “So I was writing for ‘sounded print,’ not for the spoken word. Then one day when I was about 27, an agent for lecture tours called me. I was flabbergasted. He wanted to me schedule a tour of reading poems to people…on stage…in public?

 “I started out by reading with my hands at my sides, in a high-pitched monotone. Then I started to think more about what it meant to read poems aloud. When I was young, I’d thought about being an actor—it was between poetry and acting for me—but acting is only a part of it. As a teacher, teaching other people’s poems, I had always tried to implant a voice in the poems I was teaching. Now I started to think about that voice. I started to think about how poetry sounded out loud. What was at one time writing theoretically for voicing, has now become writing actually for voicing.

 “This can do good things for your poetry, but it can do dangerous things, too. I remember a time—it was in 1959—when I was working on a poem, and there was a key word that I knew was wrong. ‘Ah,’ I heard myself say, ‘but in a reading I can make it sound right.’ And, fortunately, I caught myself. ‘Uh-oh,’ I remember thinking. ‘Watch your ass. This can be dangerous.’

“There are other dangers in thinking about reading poetry aloud. You don’t want to be writing for the applause of college students. You don’t want to limit yourself to writing poems that can be understood in hearing, although there’s nothing wrong with writing some poems like that.

 “On the other hand, there are ways it can help. I go through many drafts in writing a poem. I write every day, but an individual poem may take me a year or more to finish. I don’t start reading a poem aloud until the late stages of revision, so all of my initial relationship is to words on a page, but when I do start reading it aloud, sometimes I’ll find my voice will drop when I get to a certain word, as if I subconsciously didn’t want anyone to hear it. That’s a good signal to me that I should be taking another look at that word.”

An audience at a reading, Hall notes, should remember that “it’s different from reading a poem. Basically, you want to listen for pleasure – pleasure in the sounds of the words, pleasure in the moment – with no thought of interpretation. Just take it in, and let it flow through you.

“I compare listening to spoken poetry to learning a foreign language. At first you hear words and translate them into your own language. Then, you get to the point where you can make that leap to thinking in the other language. To get the most out of a reading, you need to make that leap – to turn off the translation machine, and just listen to the flow of that spoken language. You don’t want to be writing a critical essay in your mind as you’re listening.”

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