The Spoken Word – Poets in Performance


If you enjoy poetry, I’ve no doubt you enjoy it most frequently by reading it. “Duh!’, you say, “how else!”. Clearly, that is how most people enjoy it. Reading poetry can be a most entertaining and profound thing. It allows your imagination to take the text wherever it will, maybe where the poet intended, maybe not. That’s the beauty of poetry. It’s open to interpretation through the experiences, biases and prejudices of the reader. Reading poetry is simply a wonderfully moving experience.

I state the obvious. Yes, I know. However, I wonder how many of you have ever attended a poetry reading, festival or other venue where poetry is read out loud. How many of you have enjoyed poetry through the spoken word? It’s an entirely different and moving experience. The imagination is still engaged but in a different way; taken to different places by the tones, inflections, volume, pacing, pauses and the myriad of other ways the human voice can be used in dramatic expression. Indeed, the experience of the same poem can be completely different depending on who reads it, their experiences, biases and prejudices molding their interpretation and performance.

To give you a taste of what I mean, take a look at Bill Moyers’ “Poets in Performance” page on his Moyers and Company website. There you will find over 20 poems read, no performed, aloud by various artists. I’m sure you’ll find it a fascinating and supremely entertaining experience. To quote from Bill Moyers’ own website:

Over the years, Bill Moyers has welcomed some of America’s best poets to share their works and inspiration. Many of those writers have performed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which Bill and his colleagues covered for television specials including Fooling with Words (1999), The Language of Life (1995) and Sounds of Poetry (1999). Below, enjoy a showcase of such poetry from past productions and very recently from Moyers & Company, performed by the poets who dreamed them up, or by other artists who, like Bill, simply adore poetry.

My hope is that by listening to poetry this way you not only gain an appreciation for the spoken word but that your enjoyment of poetry in general grows. There is a place for both reading and listening and both are needed. Who knows, maybe you’ll find you enjoy it so much you’ll want attend a live poetry reading, an experience that will take your enjoyment of poetry to a new level. Imagine after having listened to a poet perform a work, you can actually speak with them afterward. Picking their minds a asking them those questions you’ve been dying to ask. So stop “just reading” poetry, start listening. Then start going and asking and writing and performing and … who knows where it will end!

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Richard Burton reads “Under Milkwood” by Dylan Thomas

dylan-thomasThere was a day when listening to the spoken word was a common and popular form of entertainment. Before the advent of television, radio and motion pictures, people gathered to hear writers read aloud their tales and poets recite their verses. But these were more than mere a reading of words, the words were enacted. The words were given life in the tones, inflections and dramatic pauses in the voices of the readers. Pace, volume, hesitation and more were part of the craft. Readings were an event and captured the imagination. It was the original form of acting.

Today, stories are enacted before us in complete and graphic detail in glorious HD on the big screen. Little, if anything, is left to the imagination. This is where today’s entertainment falls short as far as I’m concerned. Stories can be more dramatic, more effective if something is left to the imagination. Graphic depiction is overrated. There is something to be said for fading to black at the appropriate scary moment, for intimating the love making, for titillating the imagination and leaving you hanging. Acting often takes a back seat to stunts and special effects. It seems there is precious little serious dramatic acting seen anymore. I believe that goes directly to the lack of great writing being made into scripts these days.

burtonSomeone recently posted this spoken version of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood” elsewhere. It’s a truly excellent example of what I described above. The recitation is by none other than the great actor, Richard Burton. Listen to his voice, how he uses it, how he doesn’t. This, my friends, is great acting and great entertainment. Enjoy it! I’d really appreciate your comments after you listen. Agree? Disagree? Couldn’t care less? Let me know. Thanks for reading!

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