Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Reading- Poetry and Prose, Papayas and Paperclips

Before we start, let's note something first; to me, poetry's primary function is to be read silently, on paper, as written. Not out loud. There's nothing *wrong* with reading poetry out loud (heck, since the beginning of time [well, writing] poetry has been spoken and written), but poetry is first and foremost a private experience. Others will disagree, but that's how I see it. 'Course, great poems succeed in both directions~ Also, despite my beliefs, I sincerely enjoy reading poetry out loud; it's fun. Now, to the bulk of this post...


Reading poetry. It's different from reading prose for one reason: enjambment (line breaks). Also, don't read into the papaya-paperclip comparison further than the fact that the two are different; I just thought it sounded cool. Modern poetry, on the other hand, is somewhat like tofu. Er, sorry. Where were we?

While a sentence in prose is just that, a sentence in poetry holds meaning as fragments, as well as a whole. Plowing through a poem without regard to line breaks is a quick way to lose meaning and, in some cases, create an awkwardness in the poem's music. Occasionally, pushing straight forward to the next line can be a good way to gain momentum vocally, but more often than not enjambment is best paid (close) attention to. Firstly, I'd like to lay down my personal interpretation of the hierarchy of punctuation (from short to long pause):


none, hyphen(ated word), comma, semicolon, colon, period/!/?, dash/tilde, ellipsis, stanza break


Art Durkee also did one of these recently, quoted below:

So, in poetry, one might develop a hierarchy of notational pauses, for reading; for example: from short to long, line-break, extra space, comma, semicolon, colon, dash, period, stanza break. Obviously, other hierarchical orders of punctuational notation are just as feasible.

As he noted in the last sentence, other orders are feasible (i.e. the switched position of the period and dash in relation to mine). The numerical difference between these different sorts of breaks may only be a few tenths of a second, but it's an important detail.

Moving on: pay attention to the end punctuation. If it ends with an exclamation point, at least attempt excitement. Question mark? Ask the line, don't tell it (y'know?). Some questions are kinda rough to read out loud, and open to interpretation as to when you should start asking instead of telling. Here's a good example from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:


Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?


There are a few ways to handle a long question like this; from here, it's preference and instinct. The period has several subtle connotations, so that's also something left to interpretation.

There are other, smaller things to address in reading poetry, such as fluctuation of vocal tone and pitch, but that's something learned by experience (as well somewhat of an innate skill). Still, the next time I hear people read Beowulf like it's a John Grisham novel...



Blogger jdogmoney said...

"Grendel walked right up to the bench and said in hushed tones, 'Your Honour, please. This man assaulted me!'"


I'd like to hear you read some poetry sometime, my friend.

With all due respect,

12:39 AM  
Blogger AnoNick said...

I usually read poetry aloud... But I agree, the pauses and tones are very important.

Maybe you could record a reading of your own and put it in your blog ;-).

7:55 PM  
Blogger SempreArioso said...

Not to flatter you, but you have rare (at least, to me) views on poetry and art. You don't see the poem, but also the things that go into it. Now it seems that people see poetry as just words on paper and don't see the components that go into it and make it true poetry. I'm also aware that I'm speaking somewhat hypocritically. ^ ^ It's true that voice tone and fluctuations, among other things, give poetry shape and motion and I'm glad you pointed that out.

8:17 PM  
Blogger LAEvanesce said...

I'll most likely show a reading of poetry in the near future; chances are I'll do it otherwhere and link it in a post. I did The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in one go so that I could play it to myself and memorize the poem, but it clocks in at almost 7 minutes long, so I made a couple errors (not too bad, but- I'll probably do it in parts for the internet version). But yeah, I'll record myself and stick it somewhere on the web sometime.

Also, thanks for the compliment, Sempre, even though it wasn't to flatter me ^^

9:37 PM  

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