It was my good fortune to be present when Tony Harrison read here last week, for the Robert Woof Memorial Reading. Every morning, when I check the museum before opening, I put each audio system to my ear and check they are still reeling round. In the far corner, under some of the most austere visions of Wordsworth committed to paint, is a set that constantly play a few of Keats' sonnets, read by Harrison. I always linger longer than I should here, hearing the each word tripped out as though it were never written, never spoken before; the form capturing that true brilliancy of strict meter where it spools out naturally, as though birthed from the Poet's mouth each time.
Harrison's ability to read form well, I suppose, comes from the fact he writes so steadfastly in it, and knows it's a mechanism there for a reason and you just let it do the work for you. Other than looking to the punctuation and at the words themselves, you are led by the tongue through the sound-shapes you need to reproduce to the audience.
I've heard form read very badly too. Often by people who don't understand how it works, how simple it is to bring into being. They act the piece and get put off by punctuation, linebreaks and will end up mis-stressing and even mis-reading words. When we're confronted with a poem not in anything we can put can label as in a specific form the problems increase. Readers become obsessed with the line. Even where the line is not end-stopped they build to it, letting the intonation congeal at the end of each line, like wax dripping down a candle. This is considered good reading, it makes for an ominous, poetic style that supposedly captures an audience. In reality, that stress isn't there in most lines of most poems, the enjambment is lost, and the listener looses the natural flow of the poem, channelled away by the reader. I've heard people do this with their own poems.
And so my vitriol sighs and expires, patient reader. I do not claim to be a great performer of poetry, but I feel these issues should be addressed. There's enough to put people of coming to poetry readings (or worse yet 'recitals') as it is without bad performances.
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