Stand still for long enough and the whole world comes round again. Spelling Bees were back last year. Competitive remembering of the right letters for accommodation and encyclopaedia. Prizes if you could do antidisestablishmentarianism without drawing breath. This year it’s poetry recitation. Bright young faces on the podium wandering lonely as a cloud and without a piece of script or an autocue anywhere to be seen.
Is this the right way to enjoy poetry? Does remembering the stuff by rote enhance the art form, lift the spirit and excite the mind? Possibly. Verse, we need to remind ourselves, predates print, predates mass ability to read and possible even predates writing itself. A poetry that rhymed and scanned, that had rhythm, that beat like the blood beats, was easy to remember. Great tales of the tribe’s history, of victorious battles and the doings of the gods were cast as epic verse. That way no one forgot.
But that’s hardly something we need to bother with today. This is a world of constant data flood. But well recited, well written poetry does sound good. Hearing it sing in the air is one of life’s great experiences. Trouble is there are a lot of mumblers out there.
Then there’s the matter of the author. Are they the best reciters of their own stuff? Many listeners attend poetry readings not just for the poetry but also to see the poet and to hear how they think it should sound. To hear what they have to say by way of introduction and contextualisation. To get a handle on what the poem is about. That’s rarely available when poetry is recited by actors.
There has been a rise recently in thespians appearing on TV and on public platforms reciting selections from the greats. Some do it well. It’s also the only way most of us are going to get to hear Milton, Donne, Wordsworth and Hughes, given that these great guys are all dead.
Yet the practice remains a problem for the living. Contemporary poets get half their income from live readings. Public capacity for poetry is limited. Poets need to grab what they can get. Should otherwise workless actors be moving in on their territory? How would it be if poets started going up for parts in plays and putting themselves forward for voice-overs in adverts? Remember, said Mr Bookseller to Mr Tesco. I sell novels you do cans of beans. Stick to what you are best at. And we all know how well that worked out.
The late Ray Smith used to recite Harri Webb’s stuff on television. So did Harri, on occasion. But Ray always got paid more. There’s a lesson here somewhere but I’m not sure what it is.
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 11th July, 2009