Sunday, 13 April 2008

Speaking (of) poems

I've been thinking about poetry these last few days, since reading Verbivore's thoughts on e.e. cummings over at Incurable Logophilia. I'm also still reading the biography of John Donne and I'm dipping into Transformations by Anne Sexton. All in all, poetry seems to be in the air.

For Verbivore, poetry is a private and intimate thing. As I turned this over in my mind I've realised that I enjoy poetry most when it's spoken aloud, either by myself or others. Poetry spoken out loud gives me a level of enjoyment I don't always get from silent reading. Perhaps the roots of this lie in my childhood, when reciting poems was a significant part of my primary schooling. Or in secondary school, when memorising poetry and other quotes was necessary for exams (no books allowed, which means I can still quote whole chunks of things like Macbeth and Hamlet!).

Reading Verbivore's thoughts reminded me of poems that I've carried with me since my childhood. Like Austin Clarke's The Blackbird of Derrycairn:

Stop, stop and listen for the bough top
Is whistling and the sun is brighter
Than God's own shadow in the cup now
Forget the hour bell. Mournful matins
Will sound as well, Patric, at nightfall.

Faintly through mist of broken water
Fionn heard my melody in Norway,
He found the forest track he brought back
This beak to gild the branch and tell there
Why men must welcome in the daylight.

He loved the breeze that warns the black grouse,
The shout of gillies in the morning
When packs are counted and the swans cloud
Loch Erne, but more than all those voices,
My throat rejoicing from the hawthorn.

In little cells behind a cashel,
Patric, no handbell has a glad sound,
But knowledge is found among the branches.
Listen! The song that shakes my feathers
Will thong the leather of your satchels.

Stop, stop and listen for the bough top
Is whistling . . .

I still hear these words when I hear birdsong in the morning. And it still makes me forget the hour bell! But it simply must be recited out loud, that opening ("Stop, stop and listen...") demands nothing else.

I hear the words of William Allingham's The Fairies whenever I find myself walking a shore. I learned this poem at a very young age from my father, it was my first experience of poetry beyond nursery rhymes. The rhythm almost stomps along and I still get such a kick out of it. Here's the first verse:

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather.
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

I love the crispy pancakes of sea foam and the watch-frogs guarding the fairy folk as they go about their mischief. For a poem written in the mid-nineteenth century this still strikes me as remarkably fresh.

I'm currently on holidays in Ireland, with my husband and parents-in-law visiting my own family in Cork as well as touring around a little. My access to the internet is sporadic, so I shall have to catch up on everyone's blogs when I get back to London next weekend. At least I shall have some good time to catch up on reading!


Exuberant Lady said...

Lovely. And what a good point you make. And I think it holds true for me as well. I love the sound of poetry being read by my own voice or someone else's. I grew up memorizing poems as well and have dozens in my head. And they pop up at the oddest times.
Deborah @ Exuberant Reader

verbivore said...

I find myself reading poetry aloud as well - though always to myself - and its true that hearing it changes the experience, enhances it I think. Poetry plays with the musicality of language and so needs to be heard.

Enjoy your holidays - sounds wonderful, a week in Ireland!

Dorothy W. said...

I usually read poetry on my own, and I like it that way, but when I get the chance to hear it read out loud, I jump at it, because hearing the words be a beautiful experience. I'm not a good listener, though -- I don't understand much when I hear something without being able to read the words. Ideally, I'll hear someone read poems I'm familiar with.

Andi said...

I got my interlibrary loan copy of Transformations today. I have a lovely copy in Texas, but I hated to have my mom mail it just because I need to discuss. So ILL was the ticket. I hope you enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

I'm ambivalent where the question of reading aloud is concerned. I used to love it and would read poetry to the children I taught every day. But, I worked for a Head teacher who insisted that the children did 'choral speaking' every week for half an hour. As most of the children were second language speakers this was very difficult for them and really destroyed the idea of poetry. I would have skipped it, but he knew how much we all hated it and having intercoms in every room would listen in to make sure we were doing it!

Logophile said...

Deborah, I wish I had dozens in my head! You're your own anthology, which must be great!

Verbivore, I also like that reading poetry forces one to pay attention to the pauses the poet has built in. The joys of punctuation!

Dorothy, I agree that listening to an unfamilar poem can be a challenge. Which is why I must read them alone too.

Andi, so far I am really enjoying Transformations. It's quite a revelation for me and I'm looking forward to getting my thoughts together on it.

Ann, that Head sounds awful! I think that public speaking is a powerful way to build a child's confidence (I was horribly, painfully shy as a child and reciting poetry in public was part of overcoming that) but done badly it can just wreck a child's view of poetry, and even reading.