I was asked on short notice to read in public. Although I had previously indicated my reluctance, the designated reader had not arrived. I agreed to do what needed to be done.
I read a passage from the book of Isaiah that begins, “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher / that I may sustain the weary with a word.”
I was not just speaking, but was enacting a ritual reading of an anonymous prophet of Israel, sometimes known as Deutero-Isaiah, who seems to have written in the 6th century B.C. during the Babylonian Captivity.
It was lined as poetry, and I read it as a poem. Public reading is a performative art, poetry more so than prose. To read aloud effectively, there are a few things anybody ought to do.
First, speak up clearly. Project your voice and enunciate. Second, and this is important, slow down. You can adjust the pace and cadence as the text demands, but your default reading should be slow enough for everybody to hear and ponder the words. Third, modulate your volume and pauses to give some dramatic effect to your reading.
If you are reading aloud, you’re doing more than just saying the words.
Much of what cultures hold most dear is expressed in poetry. This is true not just of the cultures in our own line of tradition, the Greeks and Hebrews and Romans, but also of cultures around the world, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Chinese, and others.
Back at home, looking for a respite from the incessant commentary and retrospectives from 9/11, (I have my own stories and insights, but I’ll direct you to others for now) I found an online video of the poet Dana Gioia giving a short lecture on ten points he wanted to make about poetry.
He presents good observations about how poetry is a special use of language that leads to a distinctive kind of listening or reading. It is connected with the conservation of the past and with religion. It is one of the earliest of literary forms in all cultures, and dates from a time when writing was rare or non-existent.
People can remember and paraphrase the main ideas of prose, but they remember the words of poetry. Meter and rhyme and other sound devices serve to enhance those memories.
Poetry can be direct or indirect. Some people misunderstand it, thinking that poets present puzzles to solve. Gioia’s poems “Planting a Sequoia” and the title poem of his collection “The Gods of Winter” are both about the death of his infant son. If a poem works, it stands alone, though knowing its genesis takes us to new levels of insight.
Gioia is drawn to formal poetry, the poems that work with meter and rhyme. Much of 20th and 21st century poetry is in free verse.
He is a few years older than I, the son of a working-class Sicilian father and a Mexican mother. He went to Stanford and Harvard, whereas I was drawn to formalism at Stephen F. Austin University and the University of Texas.
Much of contemporary poetry seems to be a lot of spewing and ranting about transgressive sex and drearily predictable politics.
Yet there is much poetry that would enrich our lives, if we gave it a chance.
I took a copy of “The Gods of Winter” and put it where I can read a few poems at the start of each day.
Give it a try. Or read a poem aloud, to yourself, or better, to someone you hold dear.