The poem as a sonic experience

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • March 19, 2014

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending poet Tracy K. Smith’s reading at Boston College’s Gasson Hall. Smith’s latest collection, Life on Mars, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Inspired in part by the passing of the poet’s father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope, the book explores the nature of outer space, the universe, religious belief, and death.

I was only marginally familiar with Smith’s work before the event, so my first experience with the poems was listening to her read them aloud. Her resonant voice seemed to expand to fill the voluminous, church-like room, and her brilliant language took on a life of its own. Shivers ran down my spine as Smith read “Cathedral Kitsch,” a poem that sublimely evokes and interrogates a contemporary place of worship, with walls “leafed / In the earth’s softest wealth,” where “Cameras spit human light / Into the vast holy dark.”

The reading was a powerful reminder that poetry is based in sound. Even the most cursory literature classes teach this simple concept (after all, the very foundations of English literature developed from oral traditions), but how easy it is to forget this in a world where the poem has been largely exiled from public discourse and relegated to print. 

Read aloud, a poem is almost transformed into a new work of art entirely. Language that may seem dull, wordy, and uninteresting on the page may suddenly take on startling new vibrancy and meaning when vocalized. Conversely, the poem often sounds pleasing to the ear regardless if the listener fully understands what the poet is trying to convey; one can hear the music in John Keats’s odes, for instance, even if one doesn’t completely grasp the complex dialogues about art, love, and mortality that run through them. A great poem read aloud is a force to be reckoned with: It is the final proving ground for the poet’s rhetoric, a full display of linguistic innovation and aesthetic harmony.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am not talking about slam poetry or “spoken word” performance here. While I am not dismissing the value of these genres, they rely as much on theatricality to move their audiences as they do on the power and nuances of their language. In an effective reading of a great lyric poem, on the other hand, the poem—not the poet—steals the stage. The poem takes on an incantatory quality, as if the precision of the poet’s arrangement of words reveals some divine truth. The first time I listened to a recording of the great American poet Wallace Stevens reading aloud, I was struck by the reverence in his voice; the glorious poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” takes on a hymn-like quality as Stevens, like the woman in the poem, sings his world into being. Listening to such a splendid reading, it’s not hard to imagine why so many of the world’s religious traditions are founded on poetic texts, from the Ramayana to the Song of Songs in the Old Testament.

 A great poem is usually read aloud most powerfully by the person who composed it. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule; I much prefer reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to myself than listening to poor old T. S. Eliot’s miserable, strained attempts to sound as if he were born in London instead of Missouri. For the most part, though, recordings of poets reading their work aloud are illuminating, providing audiences with useful insights into how poems create meaning. After hearing the 1962 BBC recording of Sylvia Plath’s infamous anti-elegy “Daddy,” it is almost impossible to read the poem in the same way again, so effectively does her voice breathe life into the poem’s witchy rhymes and navigate its poles of scathing humor and personal tragedy.

We live in a time when active readers of poetry are becoming more and more scarce, and where poetry is often stereotyped as perplexing or melodramatic. If any medium is going to assert the relevance of poetry in our age, it will be audio, not print. Although we should be wary of the internet’s impact on literature as a whole, it has undeniably made listening to poetry easier than it has ever been. Thanks to resources like YouTube, the Poetry Foundation, Poets.org, and the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound page, thousands of recordings of poets from Whitman to Walcott are available to the public. iPods and smartphones now allow readers to enjoy great poetry anywhere without even having to crack open a book.

To conclude, I will turn again to Stevens, whose extraordinary short lyric “Large Red Man Reading” illustrates my argument with more eloquence and complexity that I could hope to achieve in the space of this column. Stevens provides us with a portrait of the poet as necromancer: the titular large, red man reads aloud from “the poem of life” with such force that the spirits of the dead return from Earth to listen to his words, drawn by their spell-like power and promise of truth. Stevens tells us that in the “thin…spended hearts” of the ghosts, the red man’s poetry “Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are / And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.”  I can think of no better words to express the power of poetry to move and rejuvenate the human spirit.