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In Defense of Recitation

posted: 5.9.09 by archived

by Nick Richardson

While I love poetry, there are only a few poems from which I can casually quote: “This Be The Verse” by Philip Larkin, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot, and “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These were the three poems I was forced to recite as a student of the New Orleans Public School System (although, to be fair, “This Be The Verse” wasn’t actually assigned—it was recited as an act of defiance).

“Kubla Khan” was the first, a long poem I chose for the line: “A savage place! as holy and enchanted / As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted / By woman wailing for her demon-lover!” This particular recitation remains memorable for the way my eighth-grade teacher, Blake Bailey—the now celebrated Yates and Cheever biographer—attempted (and failed) to bite back laughter at my shifts between stumbling forgetfulness and high drama: “by…like…woman wailing !”

Some students have more luck with these mnemonic exercises than I did:

“High School Student Shawntay Henry Wins $20,000 First Prize in National Poetry Competition” (Poetry Out Loud – National Recitation Contest)

Recitation need not be tortuous (in fact, it can be lucrative). The mere act of reading poems aloud, or hearing them read, can be galvanizing, and can help push an assignment from a collection of words on a page to a transformative emotional experience. Take, for example, the following recording of W. B. Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”:

For discussion:

1. I chose to share this version of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” because it includes Yeats’s own commentary on writing and recitation: “It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into the verse the poems I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.” Does Yeats’s reading seem strange to you (as he thinks it will)? And is this hyper-poetic enunciation effective?

2. Take a moment to read the “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and then listen to Yeats’s reading again. Does his articulation enhance your understanding of the poem?

3. How would you read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” aloud to best impart your particular interpretation of the poem?

More free video and audio resources can be found here:

Penn Sound
http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/

Poets.org – Audio and Video
http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/361

Poems Out Loud
http://poemsoutloud.net/about/

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Nick Richardson is an associate editor at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He holds an MA in Literary and Cultural Theory from Boston College and has published three books (two poetry, one prose)…exhibiting what poet Andrei Codrescu has called “a fresh sort of daring in the overstrained broth of contemporary American poetry.” He is also the publisher of A Mutual Respect Books and Music, an underground chapbook press operating out of Brooklyn, NY.

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3 Responses to “In Defense of Recitation”

  1. Yoga, (a)muse collective Says:

    i would humbly submit that not only is it galvanizing; i would go a step further and say that it’s a necessary part to understanding the poem, whether you are reader or writer!

  2. Meriall Blackwood Says:

    I once watched someone wreck a slight, but basically competent, sonnet by rewriting it according to the advice of people who claimed that he ought to abandon the old practice of making the phrasing match the lines. When he finished, he had not one line that finished on a phrase boundary: you *couldn’t* have read it as anything but prose. The thing was pointless, an exercise in limiting the number of beats per line, and making it rhyme in odd places, to no discernible end.

    I think I’m with Yeats.

  3. nick richardson Says:

    I’m with Yeats, and Yoga, too. Not bad company to keep!

    On a related note:

    I had Walter Ong on the mind when I wrote this post, specifically his writings on the evolution of print technology/consequent transformations of the way people think (check out Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word if you’re interested in a foundational text in the field).

    Plotting poetic appreciation through the ages on a mental graph where X = a time line and Y = a primary mode of communication/poetic appreciation… I can’t help but think we’re about three quarters of the way through a roughly hewn bell-curve.

    Very generally: verse began in the oral tradition (out of necessity). Then came print and interiority. I think all of us in the publishing industry are agreed that this phase of communication/thinking is somehow evolving… although no one’s quite sure how the chips are going to fall. In the meantime, it seems that — as a culture — we’re more interested in the verses that come wedged between choruses than in the ones you can find in the ever-shrinking poetry sections of shuttering big box book stores.

    So although rock and roll or hip-hop AS “poetry” is contentious… I think we have to take its “aurality of appreciation” as a sign of things to come. Which is, I think, where the recitation renaissance comes in.

    While realizing that the above is a bit reductive (the nature of the blog comment beast?), I’d be interested in hearing what people think about this.