For some, a song is not a poem. For some, a poem is not a song. I understand this tension. It’s the place I start from respecting both points of view and then going further looking for patterns and possibilities.
How does a poem work when its read out loud versus read internally on the page? What happens in a public performance when a speaker stops talking about something and shifts the attention to an experience of reading a poem? Is this intimate experience between the page and the reader something that can be public? Or does something get lost along the way?
A couple weeks ago I enjoyed hearing former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins perform a reading at Azusa Pacific University. I watched the audience engage with Billy Collins reading the poems and participate in sudden ah’s of insight or outbursts of laughter. Those already familiar with their favorite poems seemed to enjoy the added dimension of hearing them read collectively. The poems became something shared and larger in the collective experience. The public reading became an invitation to continue reading them privately on the page. The audience wanted more when the evening ended. Billy Collins sold all his books. Watching a community come together added to the experience. Was something lost? I do not know.
Larkin: Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the “score” that doesn’t “come to life” until it’s “performed.” It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.
I respect the seemingly opposed perspectives on poetry of both Billy Collins and Philip Larkin, one choosing to engage a public audience and the other careful not to denature the solitary act of reading a poem. As a songwriter and a facilitator I keep returning to the intersection of mindfulness and poetry and neuroscience looking for patterns and possibilities. “Learn to love the questions themselves” as Rilke writes.
My intention is to serve the poem, to follow it, to become its student, to heed the poets voice. Larkin states elsewhere that his aim as a poet is “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” I ask whether it is possible to amplify the effect of a poem so that it goes out into the world in widening circles.