Ba-REEE… Bah-onnnnnnds…

A friend asks in the one of the comments below what I thought of the inaugural poem. Well, it was okay as such things go. Ceremonial verse is such a strained species of poetry. It has to commemorate, evoke, or capture some vast and lofty moment. It's the most performative kind of poetry (well, outside of the snark-laden spoken word performances you see in coffee house slams).

Sometimes I feel about spoken poetry like I feel about classical music when I hear it in a live performance. I find that the physical presence of the performers robs of me of the solitude needed for full appreciation. I start staring at the cellist's drooping socks. Unfortunately, too, a lot of poets are really bad readers. Why is it that so many—both the acclaimed and the amateur—feel the need to alter their voices when they read their work aloud? Is there really a need to achingly elongate each vowel and diphthong or invest each line ending with weighted profundity?

For laughs a friend of mine used to satirize this style of reading poetry. He’d start with the premise that any formulation of words could become a poem so long as you read it with the right inflections. He would just speak very slowly and insert a pregnant pause at every caesura. Also, he stretched any vowel sounds, and always, always, ended every line with a wistful upward inflection. Then he’d recite some twaddle like

Ba-REEE… Bah-onnnnnnds
Why do you hit so Min-NEE … home-ruhh-nnnnnnns?

Now there are a couple of schools of thought on how to read poetry. Some say you should read to the punctuation rather than the line ending. In other words, read past the line ending until you come to the punctuated stopping point. Others say this style of reading effaces the line itself as a valuable unit of rhythm. I tend to agree with this latter view. Here, for example, are the opening lines of John Berryman’s The Moon and the Night and the Men:

On the night of the Belgian surrender, the moon rose
Late, a delayed moon, and a violent moon
For the English and the American beholder;

Something valuable is lost when you try to read it simply for the punctuation. It would read like this:

On the night of the Belgian surrender, the moon rose late.

Said this way, it sounds like the opening of a bad novel or a parody of Hemingway. But with the enjambment of “Late” into the second line, the poem is showing you how to read it. That “Late” is struck with a kind of resigned bitterness. So even if you’ve never seen this poem before, you can tell—almost by the end of the second line—with what tone it should be read. What’s coming is a memory, a war memory. The voice on the page is somewhere in the future, but looking back in an attempt to order the objective details. Here’s the full stanza.

On the night of the Belgian surrender, the moon rose
Late, a delayed moon, and a violent moon
For the English and the American beholder;
The French beholder. It was a cold night,
People put on their wraps, the troops were cold
No doubt, despite the calendar, no doubt
Numbers of refugees coughed, and the sight
Or sound of some killed others. A cold night.

The short, crisp clauses and the repetitions of phrases like “no doubt” and “cold night” make this a flinty, disillusioned kind of elegy, more matter-of-bitter-fact than mourning. Later, of course, Berryman will describe a dead soldier as “Part of the bitter and exhausted ground/Out of which memory grows.” People die in war, the poem says, simply because it is cold and they can’t help coughing, or simply because the moon finally comes up to make them visible and vulnerable.

So perhaps the way of reading a poem (if it has to be read aloud at all) is to let the style of reading emerge from what’s on the page; it shouldn’t be some grasping add-on of unearned effect. Let the poem decide how it should be read rather than the reader, or even for that matter the poet.

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