Category Archives: poetry

Reading Aloud

Many of us probably remember round robin reading with a slight shudder of horror whether as students or teachers. I suppose at the time, it seemed the most efficient and effective way to hear every student, but it could be deadly for listeners and humiliating for readers. Is it still done?

A better way, I think, is to take a page from former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins who recommends giving students time to read over the material so they can prepare themselves and be able to read in a natural style. Collins is referring specifically to poetry but I think his suggestions can apply to any kind of recitation.  Collins’ tips are part of a program called Poetry 180 that asks teachers and schools to read aloud a poem every day of the school year:

The goal is to give students a chance to listen to a poem each day. The best time for the reading would be at the end of the daily announcements, whether they are delivered over a public address system, at an assembly in an auditorium or by teachers in their individual homerooms. The hope is that poetry will become a part of the daily life of students in addition to being a subject that is part of the school curriculum.

The site provides a helpful list of poems that seem to be mostly modern and contemporary poems from mostly North American writers. Collins cautions that this is not an exercise in interpretation. The goal is to hear a poem:

Unless students really want to discuss the poem, there is no need to do so. The most important thing is that the poems be read and listened to without any academic requirements.

I find this a fascinating bit of advice.Just listen and absorb. It is similar to  Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac without the extra interesting tidbits and Keillor’s drawl.

Reading aloud as performance or art has been a minor theme of the last two books I’ve read. In his Essays After Eighty, Donald Hall writes about doing poetry readings with some history of reading aloud along with warnings for readers. He describes the move from imagining the poem’s sound through the eyes to needing to say aloud the “mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants” (p. 41).

His descriptions of the great poets he heard read match quite nicely with Billy Collins’ tips for reading out loud:

Eliot was good, but most performances were insufferable–superb poems spoken as if they were lines from the telephone book. William Carlos Williams read too quickly in a high-pitched voice, but seemed to enjoy himself. Wallace Stevens appeared to loathe his beautiful work, making it flat and half audible…Marianne Moore’s tuneless drone as as eccentric as her imitable art. (p. 42)

Only Dylan Thomas seems to have met his expectations with his “rich and succulent Welsh organ” (p. 43).

As I read Hall’s essay about reading poetry, I was reminded of James Agee’s preface to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. “This text,” he writes, “was written with reading aloud in mind.” He seems to contradict himself and offer a reverse process to that described by Hall when he goes on to say,

That cannot be recommended: but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes. (p. xi).

For Agee, sound adds meaning. As I wrote in the review on my book blog:

His prose tumbles along, piling up details and impressions, swirling the story into the midst. Sometimes, it made for daunting reading and I would look ahead for the next break. Other times, I found myself in the flow, not worried so much about exact meaning but absorbing impressions as I rode along the natural energy of the words.

I even read some of it aloud.

Poetry All Around Us

I continue to pursue getting more poetry in my life.

This week, an email from James Madison University highlighted the Furious Flower Poetry Center, introducing me to the nation’s first academic center devoted to African American poetry.  The center is dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks and the name comes from  one of her poems.  During this year’s National Poetry Month, they will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Brooks’ birth with special events and the awarding of the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize.

But, even if you can’t get to campus in Harrisonburg, they have extensive online resources from archived live events, a database of African American poets and an online journal called The Fight & the Fiddle.

One of my favorite poems in middle school was Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by then LeRoi Jones. It was in a small paperback anthology of African American poetry that I probably got through the Scholastic book club.

Jones is now poet Amari Baraka and he did a reading as part of the Furious Flower 1994 conference. He shows the power of performance for making poems come alive. Sound, words, meaning flow together and force a new perspective on the listener. And listening to poetry with the words in front of you is a very different experience as you must immerse yourself in the performance. You can’t multitask. Take 20 minutes and add poetry to your day:


Welcome, April!

April is here! I’m not a fan of April Fool’s Day which is fine since the human, furred and feathered beings I live with do not appear to celebrate, and I wouldn’t have any idea how to fool them. We lead a simple life here on the farm, and I think a prank would stand out too much to be seen for anything except what it is.

I do LOVE that April is National Poetry Month. We, as a species, do not read enough poetry, I think. It’s too hard or too deep or too esoteric, perhaps, and demands a stillness and thoughtfulness that is hard to carve out in our always on lives. April has been celebrated in poetry from T.S .Eliot’s famous opening to The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breedings
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

to Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot,
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engender’d is the flower;
When Zephyrus eke with his swoote breath
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender croppes* and the younge sun
Hath in the Ram <1> his halfe course y-run,
And smalle fowles make melody,
That sleepen all the night with open eye,
(So pricketh them nature in their corages);
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers <2> for to seeke strange strands,
To ferne hallows couth in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of Engleland, to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful Martyr for to seek,
That them hath holpen, when that they were sick.

My plans for National Poetry Month include reading as much by Wendell Berry as I can, creating some book spine poetry and deciding what poem to carry around with me on Poem in Your Pocket day, which will take place on April 21 this year.

Here’s your bit of poetry for today. Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” is one of my favorites. A collage created around the text of my poem hangs by my desk.

Listen to Wendell Berry reading The Peace of Wild Things

And as a final treat…the choral version of the poem by Joan Szymko. There are lots of renditions available on YouTube. This one is from the NJ All State Chorus in 2010:

Happy April!