The value of listening to poetry in audio
As talented as I think Amanda Gorman is, I don’t think her poem “The Hill We Climb” would have affected me so deeply if I had read it on the page rather than listening to her recitation on the day of the day. inauguration (and in that incredible yellow Prada coat). Something about hearing a poet use his words to convey raw emotion was so powerful. The subtleties of language and cadence of syntax that would have been lost in the print came to life so vividly.
The words are powerful in and of themselves on the page, but to me it just goes to show that there is no substitute for listening to our fellow humans. Why? This is because the act of reading is typically done in isolation. However, the act of listening is done in company.
I would like to say that I am social enough to have read books of poetry by all the greatest poets, dead and alive. And while I’m happy to say I’ve read a respectable body of poetry over the years… I can’t say I’ve fully understood everything I’ve read. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the rhythm of the words, the play on words and the double meaning of the words. But most of the time, poetry makes me scratch my head.
I’m a practical girl at heart and have a day job as a medical writer which means I’m used to words and punctuation marks that are relayed through conventional means. I know when to use a comma versus a semicolon and how to choose the precise terms to describe various bodily processes, but poetry doesn’t care about these rules.
Basically, poetry defies convention because it is written by people who defy convention. I mean, Emily Dickinson’s penchant for dashes always makes me raise my eyebrows. But I digress.
Looking through the pages of a poetry book, my medical editor mind always finds things that are supposedly ‘wrong’, which hinders my enjoyment and prevents me from fully appreciating the meaning and / or the intention of the poet.
So how can someone like me fully appreciate and appreciate poetry? I finally learned to accept being lost in a poem, but it’s a different conversation.
In the past, it is almost always through conversations with friends, classmates and teachers that I am able to sort out “what the author meant”. And even then, I’m still not sure. And yes, poetry isn’t always meant to be understood like a novel is meant to be understood, but damn it, I’m trying.
During the pandemic, I started listening voraciously to audiobooks and eventually started listening (you guessed it) to audio poetry. Specifically, I began to listen to poets recite their own poems. It’s interesting because most writers have their work recited by actors. But almost always, it is the poets who recite their work for the audio format.
The poems are deeply personal. True poets dig deep in writing them, to the point that the words themselves are not enough to convey the meaning. Many times the cadence, rhythm and shape of words affect the meaning. It is all much better rendered by hearing the poems read aloud rather in my head.
Don’t get me wrong, my head is capable of imagining everything from intricate fantasy worlds and interstellar battles to college classrooms and mid-century living rooms, but poetry doesn’t conjure up the same visuals as prose. Instead, for me, poetry has always evoked emotions and memories, which are themselves reactions to those of the poet. It’s never really something tangible that my mind can conjure up, unless a specific memory is triggered. Instead, I just have to listen.
As such, I can only personally experience these emotions and evoke these memories when the person attempting to do so is reciting to me. Again, the magic of listening and feeling connected rather than isolated.
The magic of the spoken word versus the written word is that the former is much more forgiving. As soon as we put a pen on paper, our mind immediately begins to form words around the rules. But as soon as we start putting words in our mouths, all we care about is relaying our thoughts and emotions. And sometimes a pause has a lot more impact than a loud verb. Of course, there are social conventions when speaking or reciting, but at least there is no semicolon.
Perhaps it also goes to the ancient roots of storytelling, when everything was recited orally for a delighted audience. Yes, we always tell prose stories out loud, but they are almost always written to be read on the page.
Poetry, on the other hand, is written to be read on the page and aloud. Something magical happens to a poem when it is read aloud. Whether it was the movement of the words or the hidden meaning that the pages covered, poetry read aloud allows me to sit back and enjoy.
The audio poetry is a recital, so I hear the words as the poet intended. And everything is going so much better in my mind. While listening, I can cut off the practical part of my brain that is used to editing the English language to fit conventions and just enjoy the language as it is presented to me.
If you want to try poetry in audio, try these must-have audiobooks by poets of color or poetry audiobooks from the past two years.