Grafitti, Paris

In a post that first appeared on the Writer’s Centre Norwich website, I talk about the joy of listening to a work, as opposed to just reading.

The Joy of Listening

With Simon Armitage coming up in conversation this evening at the Norwich Playhouse, I’ve been thinking about the pleasure of listening. I love curling up with a good poetry book and a cup of tea, but there is something altogether different and invigorating about listening to a poet perform their own work live, right in front of you.

Poems are voice, and are brought alive by voice. When read aloud language, rhythms and sounds are able to take on a life of their own, revealing things you could never have experienced by simply reading them on the page. For me, it is like sitting on the sea shore, watching the waves roll in. Each line rolls over my mind, breaking, taking shape. Each line is distinct and different from the previous, but connected and connecting.

I was lucky enough to see Alice Oswald in her recent appearance at UEA. Oswald is a poet who is particularly attuned the aural rather than the visual.  On picking up Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars I was immediately struck by the sense of an oral, bardic tradition in the way the poems are constructed. The poems seemed made to be listened to! As Sam Ruddock pointed out in his recent review, Armitage’s poems plot a line between narrative drive and playful, revealing line breaks. The poems are written in the voices of a number of different characters, almost like tuning into a series of rich monologues, or tuning though different radio channels. And yet, for all the different characters that make up the poems, Armitage’s own voice is never far away – there is a wildness and a quirkiness to the way he unpacks the stories. I’m looking forward to a suspenseful and exciting reading tonight.

Plus, there is a real joy to listening to poems in a shared environment. Where else can you hear where people laugh (as was the case with Wendy Cope last Thursday), or when an audience sucks in a collective breath in response to a beautiful line, or when the room is so silent each word falls like a single drop of water into a pool. The participative experience of listening to a story unfold is one, in my opinion, not to be missed.

Do you love listening to a poet perform live?

How do you find the experience of listening as opposed to reading?

3 thoughts on “ Not Reading, But Listening ”

  1. I never have listened to a poet perform live but I do love to read poetry so you have incited me to put it on my list of things to do! What a beautiful piece you have written.

  2. I agree there is something magical about hearing some poets perform their work and Alice Oswald is definitely one of those. I don’t find that recordings have quite the same appeal – I prefer reading, but seeing a poet live can give new insight and nuance to their work.

  3. After a lifetime as mainly a silent reader, I have gradually become more and more taken with listening to poetry. The effect has been nothing short of amazing, and has brought a heightened experience, making me able to enjoy kinds of poetry that before fell dead on the page. I find the poems ring through me, they come alive, and dwell in my being, rather than sit idly in my brain. That happened also with silent reading, but less often, and in a more restricted way. So the hearing has led me to new countries, and revealed the beauty of countries I would have given the cold shoulder or travelled through without stopping. One thing must be said: a good reader will wake a poem. A bad reader will anesthetise it – and that can happen even if the reader is the poet herself / himself. I would like more poets allowing themselves to develop their arousing voice – as Alice definitely have. Poetry recordings by good voices are invaluable to me now. They give me the aroused words without losing the intimacy and intensity of privacy. Granted, there are moments when a poet will charge the air with their words in such a way so as to cancel the sense of space and time. But recordings bring that into the roll of daily life. As a poet, I find that certain poems want to be acted rather than read, some live well in the quiet fields of the page, as musings, drafts that slip under doors. But I wonder whether even them given the time and space, and the power of the arousing voice, would not also lift off and stir the tree tops. I

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