Reading Poetry Aloud

November 26, 2004 | 15 comments
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Now that I finally have a child, one of my enjoyable activities with him is to read to him before bed. The one problem I face is not in selecting poetry I want to read, but learning how to read it properly aloud. I’ve scanned Google for some suggestions. They all tell me what I already know. Don’t put too much emotion in it (over acting). Don’t pause at the line breaks – it makes it choppy. Basically they tell me not to do the thing I can’t seem to keep from doing!


I’ve always loved poetry and those who knew me back in my Los Alamos days know my tales of our Dead Poet’s Society. The Society was formed by my best friend, Rick Clawson, and I back in the early 90′s. We obviously patterned it on the film of the same name. While not an official church activity, all the young adults were invited. One had only to bring a flashlight or candle and a single poem. We had it in a different place every second Wednesday. One week on a mesa at the end of an ancient Indian trail overlooking the valley. The next in a mossy cliff beside the graveyard. An other up in the mountains. Each person would take turns reading their poems.

It was then that I realized my limitations. For while the poems with a strong natural rhythm I could recite at will, the rest left me stuttering. So Robert Service, William Blake, Lewis Carroll, and even Dr. Seuss were great, I struggled with Shakespeare, Browning, Donne and the others I really wanted to read.

So now there I was tonight, struggling with Hamlet’s soliloquy. The poem I really wish to read is Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

Any help all you English majors out there? All the suggestions I’ve found merely tell me not to do what I do, not how to do it!

15 Responses to Reading Poetry Aloud

  1. marta on November 27, 2004 at 12:01 am

    Scan or type it in and print it out in prose form to retrain yourself. Pretend it’s just a story, not poetry at all. You’ll get used to it eventually.

  2. Bob on November 27, 2004 at 10:34 am

    Listen to Garrison Keiller read poets on his “Writers Almanic” daily news letter.

  3. David King Landrith on November 27, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    I tend to share your weakness for recital. I’m drawn to (and I find that my children are most fascinated by) poems with a strong natural rhythm. As long as I stick to Poe or Kipling, I find that the pauses or breaks find themselves, whether they’re at the end of the line or not.

    So my advice, stay with the strongly rhythmic ones.

  4. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 27, 2004 at 7:29 pm

    The question is whether you feel you should dominate/obscure the poet’s voice or express it.

    That is, the interpretation can work off of the natural rhythm or it can do its best to communicate without letting on that there is a natural rhythm. Those are the two ways to do interp.

    You can tell from the way I’m describing the two different ways to approach interp what my particular bias is ;)

  5. Ivan Wolfe on November 27, 2004 at 9:05 pm

    So, then why are the line breaks there, if we aren’t suppossed to pause at them?

    (I’m an english major, but I have never really “gotten” poetry. Mostly I stick to prose science fiction).

  6. Bryce I on November 27, 2004 at 9:16 pm

    Listen to yourself. Practice with Dr. Seuss. Even if there’s strict meter, there is still a natural prosody that resists a strict beat. Dr. Seuss is simple enough that you can practice listening to yourself without having to fight to keep things straight in your head.

    It’s a little like singing or playing the piano. When you’re trying just to hit the right notes, it’s hard to focus on the phrasing. Just paying attention to how the phrasing should sound often makes things turn out right without any special effort.

  7. Lizzy on November 29, 2004 at 12:12 pm

    I was an English major and took a number of poetry classes. I agree with Marta. The easiest way is to re-type it if you keep getting caught in a sing-songy pattern. The key is to read as punctuation dictates. Pause briefly for commas. Stop for periods, etc.

  8. William Morris on November 29, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    I agree with Bob. One of the best things you can do is listen to others read poetry.

  9. William Morris on November 29, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    I should have added: not only listen, but compare the reading with the text so that you visually see how the reader has apporached it. Although following the punctuation of the poem is a good general idea — there are poems where there’s not enough punctuation to make sense. Plus sometimes an acknowledgement of the end of the line is sometimes a good idea.

    Clark has probably already heard this — but I’ve done two readings on “A Motley Vision” — this one is the better one, imo.

    I have no idea if I’m working with the natural rhythm or not — I just go by what sounds right to me. ;-)

  10. Lizzy on November 29, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    William Morris:

    You’re right about the punctuation-sometimes it’s not helpful.

    Also, I really enjoyed your reading of “Advent”. I had never heard it before. Quite powerful! Thanks.

  11. William Morris on November 29, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    My pleasure. I hope to do more readings in the near future.

  12. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2004 at 11:54 pm

    Clark, great parenting! Highbrow poetry is good, but don’t ignore the lowly nursery rhyme–my daughter had memorized literally dozens of rhymes before she was two years old, and now at three she has a remarkable facility with rhyme and rhythm. If you are interested in highbrow adventure poetry, and can get over the deliberate archaisms (which will happen naturally after a few cantos), try Edmund Spenser’s _The Faerie Queene_ for a great, and quite rhythmic and end-stopped, adventure.

    William, very cool reading!

    As for how to read poetry, I don’t know if it really matters, particularly when you’re reading contemporary poetry that tends to be less end-stopped. In many ways, free-verse poetry is meant to be read off the page–the variable orthography is a meaning-making mechanism in itself, and one that is lost in verbal recitals. But if you do read it aloud, I don’t quite agree that punctuation should guide diction–I think it should be an interplay between punctuation and orthography. In other words, where the line ends *does* make difference, lending a subtle emphasis to the gap or the continuity between words that enjambment (the technical term for when the linguistic phrase continues beyond the line) plays up.

  13. Clark on November 30, 2004 at 12:20 am

    Actually one of my favorite poets is one of the most neglected: Alfred Noyes. While most know his The Highwayman few know his stuff on Robin Hood or various other sorts of things. But I also love Dr. Seuss and E. E. Milne’s poetry (both his Pooh stories as well as his other poetry)

  14. clark on November 30, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    I should also add that I do a wicked Green Eggs and Ham as if read by Jesse Jackson…

  15. marta on December 1, 2004 at 6:22 am

    Clark, Glad you’re willing to ham it up. A little over-acting rarely goes amiss with kids. Ours loved Heber reading Dahl’s BFG with different voices for the characters (especially when he got the wrong voice because he didn’t know who was talking til the end of the sentence), and howled over Shel Silverstein read with helium.

    It used to be the most fun listening to my youngest brother reading aloud. He read as if someone had randomly rearranged the punctuation. After 16 years of reading to his kids he sounds like a grown-up. It’s kind of sad.

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