Expansive Poetry & Music Online: Prosody
Copyright (c) 2000 by Expansive Poetry & Music Online, Somers Rocks Press and Arthur Mortensen

Part IX (Edited April 2002)

Performance, Inside and Outside
How does all of this work together?

There are two ways to perform.  Both are obvious: the one done by a poet, an actor, or anyone else reading aloud; and  the one a reader creates for his own ear.   Just as actors scan a scene by hearing the script as they read it, so do many (if not most) readers of poetry.  While this goes counter to speed reading exercises, it is essential to enjoying verse.   Read Yeats in high speed silence and you won't get the death-knell beat in "The Black Tower"  or of the funeral march in "Easter 1916."  Read Wylie or Millay the same way and you may not understand why either was so widely read.  And if you try Auden that way, you may as well not read him at all.  Brodsky went so far as to say  that phonics and semantics are virtually the same thing.  Maya Angelou has said more or less the same thing. And on that assumption one could say that silent scanning of poetry by a reader obliterates the reason to differentiate poetry from prose.

It may also be said that performing poetry badly can be as unfortunate.   Reading sours when the performer decides that -- oh, this is poetry; I must read it in a special way.  As actors who play verse drama must learn, poetry written with a care for prosody will tell the performer how to say a speech.  Special affectations added to this will make poetry and actor sound bad.   Old-time favorites in such affectation include placing accents where they're supposed to be instead of where they are.  Accents fall where the author decides, not where rigid interpretation declares, to be  appropriate; they show by how an author places the ordinary pronunciation of the word in a line.  (This concept is less robust than physical law when confronted by dialect and accent shifts, but is still a good rule-of-thumb, even with such antiquities as Shakespeare or Marlowe.)   Other affectations include the correct way of ending a line.  Remember being told to always end the line on an accent and on a higher tone?  If you're a certain age, or attended a certain kind of class in oral interpretation, you may.  While valuable to indicate a line, rigid pursuit of this rule-of-thumb may make poems incomprehensible to an audience out there or inside your head.   Why?  People will start listening to changes of pitch rather than to the words and phrasing.  Much the same thing happens when poets use the ever-fashionable chant as a substitute for good performance.  The chanting demolishes wit, subtlety, word play and even the sounds of words, thus making a mess of the poetry.  There are at least two Pulitzer Prize winning poets the writer knows who do this; hire an actor!  Greek orators did.

In fact, a general rule-of-thumb is avoid any practice in performance which breaks down comprehensibility.  Indeed, if you were an actor, your first objective would be to to say a speech so that an audience can undersand it.  That means more than being loud.  When reading poetry composed with the assistance of metrical prosody, an actor must first assume the poet competent (this offends many American actors).  That comma in the middle of the line indicates a break; so, pause there.  The absence of a period, a comma, or the end of a phrase at the end of a line strongly suggests that one should continue speaking to the first visible break, even if it doesn't occur until the end of the next line or in the middle of the one after that.   The sharp recurrence of a rhyme with a period is pretty strong suggestion to stop here, while the suppression of a rhyme by enjambment says something else.   If beats fall regularly, the poet may believe that the audience doesn't have to hear this passage as well as ones where he swaps iambs for trochees at the beginning of a line or where he drops in a period with the subtlety of a guillotine.   The only fair assumption is that the poet  did this for a reason; and generally, in poetry, that reason has to do with how a poem sounds.

There are some prose writers who can indicate how to say their sentences aloud.  Eugene O'Neill was one.  If you follow his suggestions for dialect, for instance, you can't miss; the speeches in dialect always work.   The same was true of Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, and a several Elizabethan playwrights.  Follow the instructions built in to the composition and the speeches will not only come out sounding right, but will mean something to the audience or to you. It takes some getting used to if you read most things in the silent, breakneck fashion preferred by Evelyn Wood graduates.   But it's worth it.  And you can't write metrical poetry or free verse without doing this.

Besides, why obliterate poetry in any way?  It's not intended for tomorrow's off-site meeting, nor for distant, meditative reflection on a wholly different life, as you might find in a novel.  Poetry is to be heard, whether pieces at a time of a big work like Paradise Lost or for the briefest lyric.  Poetry is active; it's to be performed.  All you have to do to enjoy how metrical poetry sounds is to follow the prosody and the exceptions the author put in.  Indeed, one of the more satisfying experiences the writer has had as a poet came after a Merkin Hall lieder recital when the soprano came up afterwards and complimented the writer on an ode she'd just sung.  "Great prosody," she said, and the writer knew she not only meant it but that she knew what it meant.