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Seven Ways of Reading a Poem

Seven Ways of Reading a Poem
April 18, 2005

How come Dylan Thomas could mesmerize audiences just by opening his mouth, whereas some poets talk into their sleeves and others prate like Polonius? Given the perils of public speaking, many fall back on default modes. There may be as many reading styles as grains of sand, but nowadays only a handful of ways to read poetry in front of an audience. Here they all are:

emphatic:

            And then I went down to the lake [look dreamily at the auditorium exit sign],
            this im mense body of water that could
            swallow me whole, as if I were Jonah [nod to someone in the fifth row],
            as I stripped off two layers to dive [secret smile],
            with scarcely a ripple, into the deep [long pause]
 

patter:

This first one I’m going to read, which appeared last year in The Significant Review, has to do with a lake, or maybe just an overgrown pond, that my family and I used to visit in upstate New York, oh, about five hours from Manhattan with one of those Indian names, in this case Wanapontoc, which is Iroquois for “sky mirror,” and the sound of that double trochee is supposed to echo against the next line if I’ve done my job right.

 

breathy:

            The other day...I went...to the water... [whoosh of air]
            which was deep...as a bell...sounding... [inhale].
            I swam...for hours until... [exhale]
            I developed a cramp and sank [glug glug]
            to the bottom...where...I’m speaking from...
            right now...
            ...   ...   ...   ...   ...   ...   ...   ...   ...

 

seesaw:

                        afternoon I went
            This                                          to the window

                        the vast expanse blue
           to view                                     as a lake

                                    drown me         with scarcely
            that could                                                         a ripple

                                    just get to the shore
            if I could                                                           and let
                                     hue                   soak
            the blue                                                into me.

 

gnomic:

                        lake
                        air
                        trees
                        body
                        layers
                        ripple
                        dive

 
mumble:
 
            This uncon[...] lake, born of [sounds like “amber”]
            [fricative] with blue, blue like my [drops head]
            as if the water itself [poured? roared? soared?]
            into a [maybe “bed”] where I could finally
                        [drops page; scuffle below; resumes with a line missing]
            leaving in the end only [purring sound]

 
slam:
 
            The lake is blue! Cobalt or Safire! Yet
            Bluer than blue, like the way I get
            When I realize I’m wasting all my time
            Messin’ around with rhythm ’n’ rhyme.
            Who prints this stuff? Don’t think I don’t know it—
            Folks who don’t like a performance poet.

Bio

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).

 

 

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