Poet Voice.

Cara Giaimo writes about a too-little-discussed topic:

Many performance-related professions and avocations have developed an associated “voice”: a set of specific vocal tics or decisions. Taken together, these mannerisms make up a kind of sonic uniform, immediately clueing a listener into who or what they’re listening to. There’s “Newscaster’s Voice,” for example, characterized by a slow cadence and a refusal to drop letters. There is “NPR” or “Podcast Voice”, which the writer Teddy Wayne has diagnosed as a “plague of pregnant pauses and off-kilter pronunciations,” and which radio host Ira Glass once said arose in direct response to those butter-smooth anchors.

And then there’s Poet Voice, scourge of the open mic and the Pulitzer podium alike. Unsurprisingly, poets are the best at describing Poet Voice: Rich Smith, in CityArts, calls it “a precious, lilting cadence,” in which “every other line [ends] on a down note,” and there are “pauses, within sentences, where pauses, need not go.” According to Smith, today’s egregious Poet Voicers include Louise Glück and Natasha Trethewey, whose fantastic poems are obscured, in performance, by this tendency of their authors. “Poet Voice [ruins] everybody’s evening,” he writes. “[It is] a thick cloud of oratorial perfume.”

Marit J. MacArthur has heard her fair share of Poet Voice. As an English professor and scholar, she has been listening to it for years. […] In a new study published in Cultural Analytics, MacArthur and two colleagues, Georgia Zellou and Lee M. Miller, skipped the human middleman and ran various recorded readings through a rigorous sonic analysis. In other words, they tried to use data to nail down Poet Voice.

You can read the results, and ruminations on the implications at the link; I confess I have mixed feelings. Yes, Poet Voice can easily be overdone, and often is, but on the other hand I despise the reading of poetry as if it were either normal conversation (ignoring line breaks and everything else poetic about it) or as if it were high drama (actors, of course, are frequent offenders here, larding every… line… with emphasis!). Lots of poets, like lots of other people, are simply not good at reading poetry; it’s a specialized skill. I’m reminded of the fate of the New Journalism, which started off as a reaction against the boring just-the-facts style of old-school reporting (“those butter-smooth anchors”) and produced spectacular results in the 1960s when applied by people suited to it, but which quickly degenerated into a tiresome set of mannerisms (as Tom Wolfe said, you have to do the research before you can do the writing). There is no one-size-fits-all way to read poetry (or, indeed, to do most things worth doing). Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. I’ve often wondered if Poet Voice had something to do with William Butler Yeats. Listen first to Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and then the other two readers of the same poem. The contrast is substantial, but the resemblance is unmistakable.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    We discussed something like this before; I recall Hat linking a clip of John Berryman, whose delivery goes way beyond “poet voice” into something altogether strange and wonderful.

    My own bête noire in this is not “poet voice” but “actor voice.” Actors mostly make a pig’s ear of reading verse, as they tend to read everything as dramatic verse. For some reason.

  3. John, I came here to mention that exact recording, although I don’t think it has any connection at all to the pointedly arch, beatnik finger-snapping free-verse slam poet voice I assume the article was talking about.

    I’m fascinated by the contrast between my lifetime of reading and appreciating that poem as a calm and soothing vision of peace, and Yeats’ violent, oracular reading of it, as if he’s breaking open the seals of the apocalypse.

    That’s not Poet Voice, that’s GANDALF THE MIGHTY WIZARD VOICE

  4. I think it’s the alveolar trill on all his /r/’s, even the final ones, that makes it so.

  5. Yeats doing “The Fiddler of Dooney” is not nearly as apocalyptic as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. He sounds more like what I would call Church of England Voice.

    Dylan Thomas had a good Poet Voice which seemed to go well with his poetry.

    I have versions of “Under Milkwood” by both Thomas and Richard Burton. I haven’t listened to either of them in a while, but I remember I enjoyed both of them. My father used to love the Thomas version and played it frequently, to the point that we used to quote from it quite a bit in family conversation. Not following the performance style though.

    It seems to me that Poet Voice is a lot more exaggerated now than it was in the days of Dylan Thomas. Or perhaps it’s just who I’ve happened to listen to.

    Here‘s an example of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill reading in both Irish and English translation. If you don’t have time for the whole thing there are examples around 6:40 and 9:30. I find her easy to listen to. I attended one of her readings a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    There’s “Newscaster’s Voice,” for example, characterized by a slow cadence and a refusal to drop letters. .. [and from the link behind “refusal to drop letters”:] “The goal of radio now is to just sound like a person — just somebody’s friend, keeping them company as they drive to work.”

    Poet Voice tends to be in-your-face in various ways, and unsurprisingly, analyzably melodramatic (“a precious, lilting cadence,” in which “every other line [ends] on a down note”). German and English morning show presenters on radio, with their mix of news and chatter, have artful voices whose artifices I never been able to analyze. None of them sounds like any friend of mine. They always seem to be urging their well-meaning personalities on the listener, as in other circumstances “have another cup chicken soup, dollink”, or “how are we feeling this morning, dearie?” in a hospital.

    I guess “border-oppressively friendly” is what I would call this. But how do they do it ? Is being basically *nice* a prerequisite ? That may be why it gets on *my* nerves.

  7. Jamessal says:

    Can someone help here? I’m trying to remember a (fictional?) accomplished writer who, when asked by the narrator (perhaps), said, “Writers write so that readers can read.” I’m of a similar mind, generally, and would urge people to keep Sturgeon’s Law in mind. I’m an avid Audible.com user and, though some readers are subpar, a little sampling (and a modest monthly fee) will furnish you excellent readings of everything from poetry to fiction to history.

  8. Stu Clayton says:
  9. David Marjanović says:

    Listen first to Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

    …Oh, I’ve encountered this perfect monotone before.

  10. Electric Dragon says:

    “the reading of poetry […] as if it were high drama” makes me think of this:
    https://youtu.be/4W9p_NFm6qk?t=122
    and this:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLEMncv140s

  11. Here‘s an example of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill reading in both Irish and English translation. If you don’t have time for the whole thing there are examples around 6:40 and 9:30. I find her easy to listen to. I attended one of her readings a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely.

    Thanks for that! I knew her from my Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (published 1990, so not so contemporary any more) and was delighted to hear her — I listened to over 20 minutes of that clip and probably wouldn’t have stopped except that I have to work. I was a bit alarmed when the guy who introduced her called her reading electrifying, startling, and spectacular, but it turns out she’s just a good reader of poetry (though I don’t like the way she overrides line endings). I love hearing Irish, and the last poem I listened to was one that was in my anthology, “Aubade” (you can read and hear the original here and read Michael Longley’s translation here; she pointed out that Longley doesn’t know Irish but had his daughter read the Irish out loud repeatedly and explain it, and tried to match the sound of it), so I was able to follow along. And I learned an English word from her comments on another poem: spancel “a rope or fetter for hobbling cattle, horses, etc.” (OED; it’s from a verb span “to harness or yoke”).

    For those who don’t know, Ní Dhomhnaill (the dh is the voiced velar fricative /ɣ/) is the feminine form of the surname Ó Domhnaill, anglicized as O’Donnell.

  12. Oh, and she had a funny anecdote about seeing “After Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill” in a poetry magazine and thinking “Am I dead?” — she wasn’t familiar with the “after X” convention.

  13. Dead, no, but I think that convention does implicate that your best (or at least most groundbreaking) work is behind you.

  14. No, a poem or translation (sub)titled “After X” simply means it is written on the model of X’s poem; it has no other implications.

  15. Oh yes, I’ve actually used that convention myself in “The War (after Simonides)”. Who is very definitely dead.

  16. jamessal says:

    Stu! You’re the man — that was driving me crazy! Thanks so much!

  17. Yeats doing “The Fiddler of Dooney” is not nearly as apocalyptic as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. He sounds more like what I would call Church of England Voice.

    Yes, (almost) 100%. I was very surprised at how rhotic Yeats was (I hadn’t come across his voice before that clip) and it fits much more with an otherwise-unremarkable member of the Church of Ireland, not the convincing RP of e.g. Basil Brooke, an aristocrat born 90 km from Yeats’ childhood home of Sligo. I had anticipated RP from Yeats.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    After X = in the style or manner of X

    In French, après X would indeed have a temporal meaning. To mean in the manner of X in the context of a work of art, the phrase has to be d’après X

  19. Bathrobe says:

    And Yeats was apparently an awful speller. If you heard Yeats delivering poems himself and read his original manuscripts, you would certainly get a very different impression from someone reading the published versions today.

    Come to think of it, you would also get a very different impression of pre-modern poetry if you read it in the original printing — especially for a poet-illustrator like Blake.

    Peter Sellers reciting ‘A Hard Days’ Night’ is hilarious.

  20. As is the Poet McTeagle.

  21. Yeats was a generation older than Brooke, which puts him into the period when using your local accent was still fairly acceptable. He also spent only a few years at an English public school, which might otherwise have hammered out his accent. Brooke, on the other hand, attended first an English-language school in France and then Winchester.

    Yeats was also tone-deaf, which probably accounts for his monotone.

    I note that Yeats was the co-editor of the first (1893) and very inaccurate edition of Blake’s enormous poem The Four Zoas.

  22. I found a YouTube video of Peter Sellers doing “Hard Day’s Night.”
    The set and costuming appeared to be a parody of Olivier’s Richard III, but I can’t puzzle out any specific reason why?

  23. Electric Dragon linked to it (and the Poet McTeagle) back upthread.

    The set and costuming appeared to be a parody of Olivier’s Richard III, but I can’t puzzle out any specific reason why?

    I’m pretty sure the only answer is “Because Peter Sellers thought it was funny.”

  24. Trond Engen says:

    John C.: “The War (after Simonides)”

    Oh, that’s good.

  25. Thank you.

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