Speaking Poetry Aloud

An imminent poetry reading (Sunday, 2nd March 7pm at The Torriano Meeting House, 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, London NW5 2RX – come along if you’re around) and some comments by Robin Houghton about open-mic slots in her recent blog post have made me think about speaking poetry aloud: how I love some events but cringe at others.

I’m not talking about performance poetry, by the way, I’m talking about page poetry being read or spoken aloud.  I think the cringe factor sets in, for me, when a reading becomes more about performance than poetry and more about the poet than the poem. But it’s not an easy balance to get right.  I certainly don’t enjoy readings where people mumble, speak in a monotone, speak too quickly, never look at the audience, or, worse, look bored.  But I’m not keen on loud, dramatized readings, either.  Too much striding about,  hand movements and extravagant gestures make me close my eyes to blot out the sight of the wandering poet.  I want to be offered the poet’s words and allowed to taste various meanings; some assistance is welcome but too much and I feel I’m being held down and force fed the poet’s singular flavour of soup.

I’ve written about poetry open-mic tips before and there were lots of helpful comments added.  I know that I’m not a natural performer and I’m too quiet a person to have dazzling stage presence but stage presence isn’t something I particularly want at a poetry reading in any case.  One of the most effective reader that I’ve ever witnessed was Philip Gross.  He was able to pitch his voice at exactly the right volume, so that I had to lean forward slightly but at the same time could hear every word.  Then, I don’t how he does this, but he almost absented himself from the room when he spoke, handing over the poem to the listeners, not over-emphasising any particular word or line to signal to us that something significant was going on.  He trusted us to work out the poem (although, of course, he gave brief and fascinating introductions to each one), and if that happened to be different to what he was thinking of when he wrote the poem, you sensed that this wasn’t be a problem for him, in fact quite the opposite. (Of course, I might be completely wrong in thinking this and Philip Gross might be exceedingly possessive about the meanings of his poems).

It’s important to believe in your own poetry – if you don’t think it’s very good, why are you sharing it with other people?  But it helps if you can, somehow, not show that you think you’re an amazing poet.  I’ve been at readings where a poet has obviously been thrilled by a certain line (we’ve all experienced this, haven’t we? when we’ve come up with a line or phrase and said to ourselves “Bloody hell, that’s good!”) and has slowed down or spoken that line a little louder, to make sure the room appreciates they’re witnessing something extraordinary.  The room starts to shuffle its feet a little if it doesn’t quite share the poet’s notion of genius.

Perhaps the issues I have with ‘over-performing’ stem from being taught by a no-nonsense nun called Sister Martine when I was seven years old.  Hours before my class appeared on stage at an all-schools musical concert in our Town Hall, Sister Martine gathered us together to warn us solemnly “Now I don’t want to see any children showing off.”  I think I’ll be heeding my old teacher’s advice tomorrow night; if I’m tempted to add any unwarranted drama, I’ll picture her stern face watching me from the front row.  Then again, jazz hands might be just what a poetry reading really needs…..

jazz hands

10 thoughts on “Speaking Poetry Aloud”

  1. I think she gave good advice. Many of those involved in amateur dramatics should have had a taste of Sister Martine.


  2. Ha ha! Oh dear yes, the ‘over performance’. It’s a tricky one. I was recently at a reading where the first poet was clearly very confident about speaking, and made lots of great eye contact with the audience, things I admire in people giving talks (say, in a business setting), she kept my attention and I ‘took in’ her poems more easily than I sometimes do at readings. But there was something a tad irritating which I couldn’t put my finger on, until another audience member said afterwards ‘she was a bit too smug for my liking’.

    There’s a strange line isn’t there between ‘public speaking’ and the presenting of poetry. It seems a shame to penalise someone for coming across as too confident/knowing/cocksure, but I know what you mean. Yet part of me applauds the show-off. Like you, I had it instilled in me from a young age not to show off, and I think the worry of appearing too confident (and the fear of being disliked because of that) held me back in many ways, which I regret.

    Thanks for bringing this up, it’s an interesting topic. As to tonight, your sensitivity and awareness of the issue means I’m sure that your reading will be perfectly pitched! Sorry I can’t be there, but enjoy and good luck!


    1. I feel that making comments about readings is unwise since it’s not long now until my turn to speak! Feeling more and more nervous as the day progresses. As Jo has said further down, I’ll concentrate on the work and not worry too much about the audience liking me. I’ll let you know how I get on. I think I need to do this more often. You’re so right, fronting a business meeting is completely different to giving a poetry reading but wouldn’t it be fun to mix things up a bit?! Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Robin.


  3. Some of the best performers are quiet ones – Michael Symmons Roberts reads quietly but holds the room. Just read slowly, look’em in the eye and remember that they are there for the work, not exactly for you – you’ll be fab as always. X


    1. Thank you, Hilaire! It’s the morning after now and it was wonderful! A kind and encouraging audience, great poems from Stephen Elves who read with me, as well as poems from the floor and a soulful singer. I must do this more often 🙂


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