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Poems Read Aloud

This spring, I am “poet in residence” at a middle school. It is fun to be back in a classroom, especially since I am only there once a week and only for a hour. The students have sessions where we write, revise and listen to each others poems.

There are three “events” where they can read their best poem aloud. One is performance-oriented, but the other two are just readings and it is quite a thing to be that age and be able to stand in front of a crowd and read aloud. Some will memorize. Some will add some performance, but I’m impressed with any of them reading something they wrote aloud at that age.

My own first reading at an open mic in a bookstore happened in high school and before I read my knees were very literally shaking and I had to hold onto the podium to keep my hands still.

Having heard actors and poets read some poems on recordings, my idea of “how to read a poem aloud” was rather distorted. I knew I couldn’t read like Richard Burton, but I thought that kind of reading should be my model.

Of course, you don’t need celebrities to have a good reading of a poem, but actor John Lithgow put together The Poets’ Corner  a collection of well known poems read, and had them read by a group of celebrities. The readings are online.

I listened to the collection and it brought back memories of poems read or heard when I was a young student discovering poetry. It includes Wallace Stevens poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (read by Kathy Bates) which was a poem that grabbed me in high school with its title and language.

There are many collections of poets and others reading online. You could spend days going from one to another on YouTube alone. I share some of these with students because hearing poetry read aloud is not a commonplace event for most people. young or old.

The students read their poems too quickly. They try to memorize rather than “learn by heart” their poems – a difference that is not easy to understand or learn. Some over-dramatize. They use their “poet voice” in the way that novice Shakespearean actors drift into British accents – even when Romeo is Italian or Twelfth Night  takes place in Illyria (Yugoslavia) and Hamlet and friends are from Denmark.

It is rare to see a poet (or any writer, though non-fiction writers and novelists get more airplay) interviewed on TV – even rarer to hear poetry read. I was happily surprised when actress Helen Mirren was asked by Stephen Colbert to read the end of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” on his show. (read “Ulysses”)  It is an old poem and apparently one Colbert has great affection for.

“Death closes all: but something ere the end
Some work of noble note, may yet be done…”

That section of Tennyson’s poem – hopeful that some work might still be done – reminds me of the Epilogue to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero, a wizard and an old man, gives this final speech and I have always thought of it as Shakespeare’s own farewell/retirement speech. He asks that the audience “release me from my bands, with the help of your good hands.” The two times I have seen the play performed, after that line the audience did, with its applause, free him. Shakespeare’s “project” – “which was to please” is finished.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

I think that many of my young poets, like Prospero and Shakespeare, want “spirits to enforce, art to enchant.”  I hope they get that, if only for a few minutes when they read and are freed by the audience’s hands.