I spent some time this afternoon reading poems by Billy Collins at a library event; the library has a reading series where they have poets come read their work, and then they end the series with a session devoted to some well-known poet, with local residents doing the reading. I’ve become known to the woman in charge of the series because of the volunteering I’ve done at library sales, and so a few weeks ago, she asked me to participate.
I’m glad I did because it can be so wonderful to hear poetry read out loud, and to read it out loud oneself. We were a small group, maybe 13 or 14, in a small, cozy room, and most people knew each other, so it was comfortable. I had chosen five poems to read, and as I read I was surprised when people found the poems funny and started to laugh. Now Collins can be a funny writer, but I don’t laugh out loud when I read his work. But doing a reading with an audience changes things; what’s mildly amusing on one’s own is laugh-out-loud funny in a group.
I knew that poetry is often meant to be read out loud, and that it’s often better experienced that way, but it’s another thing entirely to experience that directly.
It reminds me of the poetry reading that took place at the conference I went to last month; a bunch of us sat around in a room and read 18C poems out loud to each other. It was wonderful to hear poems I’ve known and read on my own being read out loud; they were funnier or more moving when experienced that way.
I’m not particularly good at listening to poetry if I’m not already familiar with the work; I am such a visual person that I have trouble following words if there’s no text. But when I know the work being read, then listening to poetry is a pleasure. Perhaps I should see if my library has any poetry on CD to listen to in the car … I wonder what that would be like.
Here’s one of the poems I read today; it’s one I teach, as it’s a good way to get students to think about the sonnet form:
All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.