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.

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