On Reading Poetry

Once in a great while I enjoin the readers of poetry to read aloud, as poems, like music, are meant to be heard—by the reader’s own ears. For, just as one competent to read a piano score may “hear” all the notes in his mind, how much more fulfilling and thrilling it is to hear notes played on the piano. Then I am given to wonder at what level of loudness the poems are read. Are they barely whispered, as to someone sitting two feet away? Or are they given full voice, as if speaking to a company in a fairly large room?

When at my best, and in a solitary place—usually outside somewhere—I read as if I were addressing the high trees or the far rock, or even a small valley. And this is when I enjoy long poems the most. Poems like Shelley’s Alastor and Swinburne’s Tristram Of Lyonesse I am apt to read in one unbroken session. (It was while reading Alastor in a secluded woody area of central Park one early morning that dozens of sparrows flew into the tree-branches all about me and all began chirping at once, so that I had to pause for my own joyous laughter.)

The reading aloud of a great long poem gives me a pleasure like none other. The continuous rhythmic effect becomes self-exalting. The difference in effect between short poems and long poems may be likened to the difference in the keen mental delight one gets from a five minute concert etude and that much deeper, fuller experience one may have from listening to a symphony, concert, or an opera.

Are most people today too social, too un-alone, to be able to provide for themselves with a place and time for the full enjoyment of long poems? I don’t know. I note that Ayn Rand said once—I forget where—that Swinburne wrote “magnificent poetry.” How many have made the effort to experience that magnificence?

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