Poetic License

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About a month ago, I saw a story about a project being put together by a brand new production company.

The project was called “Poetic License 100 Poems 100 Performers” and the idea was to get actors to perform their favorite poems, package it into a CD, and sell it during National Poetry Month. They sent me a sampler to review, and I couldn’t really get a handle on how to approach it for the longest time. I was really turned off by it at first, and I can’t honestly say I’m into yet, though it’s growing on me some.

Part of the problem is my own bias, a bias that Curtis Fox and Don Share discuss in their Poetry Off the Shelf podcast from a couple of weeks ago. One of the things they discuss is the poet’s intimacy with his or her own work. Fox plays two audio clips of the same poem at the beginning of the podcast–one by Edward Hirsch and one by an actor. And as Fox says, it’s easy to tell the difference. The one performed by the actor is more noticeably emotive; it’s breathier, more earnest, and I respond to that as false. That’s a little unfair, I think, because I’ve heard poets read their own work in that same tone, and I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.

That over-earnest tone is in full bloom in “Poetic License,” at least in most of the pieces I received. The poems themselves contributed to this–lots of Romantic, Victorian and early Modern selections with ponderous points to make. The selections that seemed to work best of the 14 I listened to were Charles Busch’s rendition of “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning and JoBeth Williams’s version of “When I Have Dreams” by John Keats. Busch got the sinister tone of the Duke of Ferrara across without chewing every line (unlike Chris Sarandon with “Ulysses”), and Williams was understated with Keats, and let the poem do the talking.

But I’m willing to reconsider my current position that the poet is always the best person to perform the work. As Don Share pointed out in that podcast, the notion that the poet is the best performer is apparently a fairly modern convention. It strikes me–on the surface at least–as similar to the modern veneration of the singer-songwriter in popular music. During the first half of the twentieth century, there wasn’t much of an expectation that singers would write their own songs, or that songwriters would perform them. Today, there’s a distinct prejudice (in the US) against people who “just sing,” as though that’s an ability that any schmo off the street can provide given enough practice. “True Art,” it seems, comes only from the person who writes his or her own material and then gives it voice.

But just as not all songwriters are good singers, not all poets are good at performing their poems. (There are also those who are better at performing their poems than they are at writing them–Billy Collins defines this category for me.) And anyone who’s gone to enough poetry readings knows this. The poet doesn’t want to be up there, grappling with the microphone stand, dropping the cap to the water bottle, shuffling sheets of paper or thumbing through a book, mini-post-its blooming from its edges. Stammered explanations of obscure (or not-obscure) words and stories about where the poems came from abound. And then the poem is either rushed through, or every word, every line break, is
carefully
measured
out
punctuated
by inhalation
and head
nod.

Maybe these poets should make friends with actors, and bring them along to readings–let the actors perform the poems under the poets’ direction. Everyone wants to direct, right?

It’s probably unfair for me to slam “Poetic License” too hard. I get the feeling that poets are not the target audience–fans of Broadway, where most of the performers currently work, are the people this is being pushed on, and they may well love it. For those of us who want to hear contemporary poets reading their own poetry, there’s From the Fishouse for one. For audio of poets reading other poets’ work, Linebreak, and The Poetry Foundation’s podcasts for a couple of examples. And a lot more, only a Google search away.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →