Audacity of Voice: The Poet as Actor, Michael Maglaras' Hiawatha Marathon, and How I Made my CD

A good recent podcast in the Poetry Off the Shelf series is called Actors vs. Poets.  Not only does this spirited discussion between Curtis Fox and Don Share feature the recorded voices of Tennyson and Bishop—and a magnificent British actor crooning "April is the cruelest month"—it raises some important questions about the nature and function of the contemporary poetry reading.

One thing we learn is that when it comes to hearing poetry performed, actors were long the preferred readers, as opposed to the poets themselves.  Nowadays, however, it tends to be just the opposite.  One reason suggested by Curtis and Don is that the gravelly (in the case of Ed Hirsch, their test case) and relatively unpolished voice of a poet provides the grip of authenticity that a trained actor's voice would lack.  Another reason is that actors used to be trained in Shakespeare and knew how to perform poetry properly, but they don't anymore.

While I suppose I agree that many people in our culture seem authenticity-starved, I'm not sure that the poetry reading is the best place to satisfy that need (especially given the fact that, as I think someone posted recently on Harriet, poets can be rather generic performers). Isn't poetry, however revealing or honest, always also about artifice and community and the universal, about something that lies in a sense beyond individual authenticity?   I'm more interested in a possibility suggested by the Shakespeare idea:  we far prefer to hear poets read because the poet's physical voice often functions to complete a contemporary poem.

Most kinds of free verse (with the notable exception of the long-lined, highly rhythmic free verse of Whitman and Ginsberg) tend to be visually structured, with line breaks manifesting on the page rather than in the ear (as is well explained in this 1991 essay).  Consequently, reading free verse aloud is a highly creative act.  Without a metrical pulse marking off predictable linebreaks underneath the individual performance, for example, spoken enjambment remakes a poem's linebreaks for the listener.

By contrast, a poem written in meter is rhythmically self-contained, like a musical score.  As with a piece that any number of people can play on the piano, it can be performed in a myriad of ways, but the underlying rhythmic structure is plotted within a vocabulary of immutable trajectories.   Meter provides a poet with something that can’t be achieved in any other way:  the ability to convey exactly the intonations of words and lines, to continually create the ways your readers will hear them in their minds.

Reading aloud a metrical poem, an actor enacts choices about phrasing, syllabic emphasis, or relative pitch that have been worked out already by the poet and are encoded into the poem's metrical DNA for anyone who is willing to read the poem aloud  (mentally or literally) a couple of times with attention to its swing (or, especially in the case of more unusual meters such as alcaics and dipodics, who has the knowledge or rhythmical sensitivity to click into the meter).  The rhythmical choices are contained, so that performative interpretation has a clearly marked fertile field in which to play-- and the playing happens in the area of emotion and expression, the field in which actors are trained to excel.

But what would be interpretation, or at most counterpoint, in the performance of a metrical poem becomes more like a mode of performative co-authorship for a free-verse poem. Quite a responsibility for an actor; so if actors sound forced and anxious while performing contemporary poetry, and if we prefer the more relaxed sound of poets reading their own work, the hegemony of free verse (virtually invisible, as hegemonies are) may have something serious to do with it.

Or maybe not.  But either way, to be a poet nowadays means to perform your work.  I have thought a whole lot about this aspect of poeting lately because I just produced a CD of my book Calendars.  Unlike with a regular poetry reading, I had all the time in the world, and I took it, recording each poem multiple times and frequently splicing together bits of different takes to get the version just right.  After experimenting with Garage Band, I used a very good free program called Audacity, which provides a little EKG-like graph of your voice to edit. You can zoom in on a tiny speck of syllable, and it's remarkable how much time you can spend removing a bit of sibilance from the end of one syllable before splicing it on to the rest of the word from another take.  I spent hours, days, weeks, even months recording, then leaning over the beautiful little squiggly tracks and stretching them out so I could tell the k's from the p's, cutting and pasting and listening to the poems over and over; in fact, the whole process took over a year.

Sometimes I would berate myself for wasting time and wonder what this had to do with my job as a poet.  Shouldn't I just write the poems and leave the recording to someone else?   But it seems to be the wrong era for that.  I think part of my motivation for spending so much time on the CD was that I write poetry for the (internal or external) ear, and, as I described in a previous Harriet post, "Listening to Poetry," people used to reading free verse might not at first know to listen to the rhythms the way I intended them to be listened to.

It was not a waste of time, in the end.  It was an amazing experience. I fell in love with the Audacity program; I reconnected more strongly than ever with poetry's roots in oral tradition;  I got to know the book better (and, perhaps, grew as a poet) by being forced to make the meaning-related choices that seemed to emerge regarding every syllable (where to counterpoint an accent, where to emphasize it, where to swing with a momentum or against it, or push it)—and recently, listening to the just-released CD on my Ipod (it does make a soothing sound track for the subway, if I do say so myself), I not only felt proud of the finished product, but I felt that familiar itch to make a few more changes that for me tends to mark an authentic creative project.

So it was a creative project.  Which makes it all the odder that it wasn't like a book of poetry, where one is attached to the final product as the only version.  In fact, now it is all done, I don't really care if anyone else ever reads the poems that way again.  It's as if I've put my own take out there, and now they are up for grabs. By anyone.  Which brings the whole discussion full circle back to the question of actor vs. poet again.

Michael Maglaras is an professional reader-aloud of poetry. He trained as an opera singer, and he loves poetry, and one of the things he does is to go around and give readings.  I met him when I introduced his six-hour reading of  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha at a theater in Portland last year.  How long will all these folks last, I confess I wondered cynically when I first walked in and saw the house was full.  Yes, I confess to a slight feeling of superiority, earned from the hundreds (maybe thousands?!) of hours of poetry readings i've sat through. Did these people (realtors and plumbers and all kinds of other people, judging from my random queries, but not a single poet that I could tell) know what they were in for?

But I was laughing out of the other side of my poetic mouth three hours later when the house was still full, with people knitting happily and kids sitting on the edge of their seats and everyone rapt with attention, riding the trochees onward with all their variations and subtleties as Michael intoned the prologues and boomed the battles and storms and whispered the love scenes and wiggled like a squirrel and channeled Hiawatha and Pau-Puk-Keewis and  Kahgahgee and  Minnehaha and Laughing Water and Wagemin and Nokomis and the scores of other characters Longfellow had researched so painstakingly.

When I had to leave, regretfully, a couple of hours after that, many people still remained in the audience—after five hours—to hear the final controversial scenes of the poem.  I was humbled, and excited, by the singular power of the perennial, metrical spine of poetry, surging its energetic currents among us, bringing images alive within a community of people.  And when Michael looked at my own work and decided he wanted to perform some of my poems, I was excited too. Now my version of a poem from Calendars can be compared to Maglaras' version of the same poem.  If anyone wants to continue the Actor vs Poet experiment begun on the podcast, where listeners were asked to compare an actor and a poet reading the same (free-verse) poem, I'd be curious what you think; would the experiment come out differently with a metrical poem?

Originally Published: April 29th, 2010

Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...