Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

In praise of poetry

Once upon a time,  children in school were taught to  recite poetry. The school day began with group verse speaking.  Forty years on, I can still recite extracts from Banjo Paterson and John Masefield (dirty British coaster with a salt-caked-smoke-stack)  which we performed with vigour before daily mentals and spelling goals.

Groupwork-in-the-morning remains a smart teaching tactic, but reciting poetry, along with pretty well all training in reading aloud, has disappeared. And I think we’re the worse for it.

The large number of people  in public who read from notes, never look up, stumble over words, speak in a flat monotone or  a voice that sounds like sandpaper, is staggering.  It’s because they don’t know how words work when they’re sounded aloud.  They’ve never practised reading, listening, understanding and vocalising, so it doesn’t make sense for them.

Practising aloud with poetry can help you to avoid this. Reading aloud  is confronting.  Poetry is emotionally intense, and it follows strict rules of form. Poets use unusual vocabulary and sophisticated constructions. They choose words very precisely because they have certain sounds, and arrange them (artificially sometimes) so those sounds produce certain effects.

Reading poetry aloud requires meticulous attention to meter and meaning, pause and  pace. You must study the text very closely and  convey its sense. It’s a great exercise in speaking because you need  to make it clear  and beautiful and put meaning in your voice.

A person who reads and recites poetry has imbibed all this, has learned to navigate strange grammar and odd words and weird pauses and still put the  feeling across. They have a storehouse of rich language, vivid meaning, imagination and ideas to call on in other forms of oral and written expression.

It’s easy to memorize texts when you are young (as I’ve learned now that I’m not), but at any age one can enjoy the accents and patterns and moods of a poem spoken out loud. The American Academy of Poets  is a wonderful place to start.  Most of their poems have a ‘text flow’ function, a little  auto-cue, which helps you pace the lines and as you read aloud. They will email you a poem a day if you sign up, and there’s a section of poems suitable for memorising and reciting. Look also at the Favourite Poem Project for moving examples of people and their favourite poems, and for Australian poetry go to The Australian Poetry Library. They all will fuel your love of language.

If you want to give it a go, here is a starter’s guide to reciting poetry.

1. Maintain good posture and eye contact. Stand up straight and look at the audience.  No slouching, no rocking from side to side, no leaning on a table or podium, and no staring at the floor or ceiling.

2. Start by reciting the name of the poem and the poet, pause, and then recite at a natural, relaxed speed. The temptation is to go  too fast. Read  out loud much slower than you think you need to.

3. Enunciate clearly, pronouncing each word clearly and distinctly.  Let the sentiment of the poem animate you.

4. The reading should sound natural, as if you are reading prose.

5. Do not pause at the end of a line of poetry! Pausing creates a choppy effect that destroys the sense of the poem. Read the poem a complete sentence at a time, pausing only when there is some punctuation, like prose reading, only slower.

6. Pronounce words correctly. Poetry regularly includes advanced vocabulary. Stumbling over words destroys both the beauty and the meaning of the poem.

7. Have fun! Remember, oral recitation of poetry was once considered public entertainment.

Thanks to http://angelinainlouisiana.blogspot.com.au/2009/11/how-to-conduct-poetry-recitation.html for some of the above.


One comment on “In praise of poetry

  1. Susan Williams

    Oh, I do accord with you, wise friend. I teach my students to read aloud every sentence they write, to understand that good prose should follow the natural rhythms of speech.

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This entry was posted on 12/07/2012 by in Presenting a speech.

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