Reading Poetry Out Loud

‘First I would like to write for you a poem to be/shouted in the teeth of/ a strong wind./Next I would like to write for you to sit on a/ hill and read down the/ river valley on a late summer afternoon,/reading it in less than a whisper..Carl Sandburg

TIPS: relax and be natural. Probably the two most useful pieces of advice for readers are to be yourself, and to spend time beforehand appreciating how your poem achieves the effect you so much appreciate. Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of America, author of the recent Book of David, a biography of the Old Testament King David, and inspiration behind the hugely successful Favourite Poem Project (link), gives this advice : ‘Read it aloud to relish the consonants and vowels and the way the verbs and adjectives and nouns do their job’.It can be very helpful to write your poem out in long hand slowly and reflectively a few times. It is often good, if you are in any way nervous about standing up in front of people, to try your poem out on someone with whom you feel relatively relaxed. This will immediately show you whether you have lapses of concentration, and therefore of delivery, due to selfconsciousness.The remedy is simple: just plunge into the poem, honouring it with your fullest concentration. The audience have come to listen to poetry. They will appreciate your poem, and you, far more the more they witness your love of it. So don’t get in the way!

Rita Dove(xxxx)describes the involvement of the whole body in spoken language:

‘The music is so important to me, I can’t really emphasize that too much. I think that one of the ways that a poem convinces us is not just the words, the meaning of the words, but the sound of them in our mouths, the way they increase our heartbeat or not, the amount of breath it takes to say a sentence, whether it will make us breathless at the end or whether it gives us time for repose or contemplation. It’s the way our entire body gets involved in the language being spoken. And even if we are reading the poem silently, those rhythms exist. ‘

Robert Pinsky (xxxx) ‘ …poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing. Moreover there is a special intimacy to poetry because, in this idea of the art, the medium is not an expert’s body, as when one goes to the ballet: in poetry, the medium is the audience’s body. When I say to myself a poem by Emily Dickinson or George Herbert, thae artist’s medium is my breath. The reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words. This makes the art physical, intimate, vocal, and individual.’

Marge Piercy(xxxx) pleads with her readers to enhance their appreciation of her poem by saying it out loud, and not to worry if they sound foolish:

‘A poem like this one is designed to be said and heard, and the more you overcome any fear you have of making a fool of yourself and experiment with saying poems — chanting them, reciting them, shouting them, crooning them, the more you will hear of how each is put together and therefore the more enjoyment you’ll get out of a poem. A poem speaks to you with its sounds and its rhythms as much as it speaks to you in the meaning of its word.’ 

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) practises what he preaches about sound:

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus’ vary’d Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World’s Victor stood subdu’d by Sound!
The Pow’rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.


Robert Pinsky. The Sounds of Poetry A Brief Guide (FSG 1998 ISBN 0-374-52617-6)

Meaty yet accessible instruction in how to hear the language of poetry consciously, so that we can start to enjoy poems and lines of poems more and more. A brilliant book for anyone who wants to know, but doesn’t yet know very much, about the ‘bodily art’ of poetry, the way poems create their effects in the reader. In Pinsky’s words, ‘The theory of this guide is that poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art. The medium of poetry is a human body : the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth.’ Pinsky grounds  his discussion of accent, stress, verse form and syntax in relaxed and revelatory readings of many poems. Taking as his epigraph Yeats’ lines ‘Nor is there singing school, but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence’, he adds that ‘no instruction manual can teach as much as careful attention to the sounds in even one great poem’. His guide  achieves a great deal in a short space in a very pleasurable way. By increasing appreciation and understanding, it cannot but help improve reading aloud skills as well . Excellent.


Patsy Rodenburg, the legendary voice teacher, explores the crucial factors that prevent us using our voices the best we can.She combines her analysis with a thoroughly practical, comprehensive and helpfully simple manual that will assist all of us who want to liberate our voices from any one of the many possible restraints and distortions we may have endured or acquired. She discusses  how habits take root, how they can be brought under control, and how the voice works naturally. ” I want to look at how the voice gets blocked, the different kinds of strains and tensions we make our voices suffer, and how the voice can be relaxed from all this anxiety and extended in range and colour. Mostly I want you to see for yourself how the conspiracy against your right to speak evolved. How background, gender, injury or illness can all taint the sound we make. Maybe I can explode some of the nagging myths that arise, frighten and sometimes paralyse so many average speakers….nothing is quite so freeing and enlarging as a liberated voice.” This is a marvellous book that, with use, convincingly demonstrates how exciting and revealing voice work can be. It gives plenty of exercises to be getting on with, either alone, with friends or in the company of a voice coach. Highly recommended.


The sequel to THE RIGHT TO SPEAK, this volume links voice work with more extended work on language and texts. Rodenburg explores how to connect your voice to words so that you can speak any kind of text with ease and confidence. ” Any good speaker must captivate us with a need for words…when (the voice) releases the power inherent in individual words and texts we come into our own as communicators”. She explains how different cultural problems and barriers block our need for words, showing us how to work on a text and what cues it contains for the voice.. The second half of the book is full of interesting and enjoyable exercises for finding our voices and connecting with specific texts.The chapter ‘Voice into Text’ would be particularly useful for Pass On A Poem readers, whether they have some experience in reading poetry out loud or are new to it. Rodenburg demonstrates step by step how to unlock a great oral text in the act of speaking it, offering ‘a way of arousing a practical partnership between you and the writer of the text’. In the final chapter, she accompanies us on a further journey through a series of texts, familiar and unfamiliar, including poems, verse plays and dramatic dialogues and monologues from several centuries ‘so you can begin mating your own voice to the challenge of speaking aloud.’ A passionate, truly useful and inspiring book.



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