We all know what “Poet Voice” is, right? A poet reads their work aloud and they take on a vocal style that’s flat, slow, monotonous, weighted down with cringing self-conscious significance.
I harbor an intense dislike of Poet Voice. I’m happy to see rigorous analysis backs me up on this.
An Algorithmic Investigation of the Highfalutin ‘Poet Voice’ by Cara Giaimo, posted on Atlas Obscura, May 1, 2018
Still, it bothers me when people critique Poet Voice primarily by comparing it to regular conversational voice. Poetry shouldn’t be treated like normal speech—it’s an elevated use of language and recitation should reflect that. Poetic recitation should be more performative, more crafted, distinct from casual conversation. Each word of a poem is significant and must be heard and understood.
The problem isn’t that Poet Voice is unnatural or different from conversational voice. The problem is that Poet Voice is boring.
I like the phrase “monotonous incantation”—it’s completely accurate and fully captures the boredom of the experience. It’s all too stodgy.
Part of the issue here is one of translation—poetry is written, composed as words on paper, where layout and line breaks and spacing can be as important as the words themselves. How do you convey the necessary visual elements of written poetry when you speak the poem aloud?
Thus, all those awkward silences, too long pauses, soporific metronomic vocal cadences.
It’s necessary for poetry to have a vocal style which differentiates it from casual speech. But it deserves something better than dull Poet Voice.
The challenge is to elevate poetry recitation by imbuing it with all the art that’s unique to human vocal abilities. Not a plodding exercise but a reveling in language. Poetry recitation requires a performative aspect, an injection of the theatrical.
It would serve us well to remember that poetry used to be sung.
The problem, of course, is that many poets are writers but not performers. (*) Most have no training or experience in theatrical or vocal techniques. Asking most poets to perform their work is asking too far outside their wheelhouse.
I wonder how much of Poet Voice stems from stage fright, or from the traditions of academic lecturing.
Personally, I’d like to see poets use actors, hip-hop artists, singers, or other performers to read their works, rather than the poet reading it themselves. It’d be a hellva lot more interesting and far less self-indulgent.
* Slam poets are a remarkable exception to this: their form of poetic art is essentially performative and not written. Instead of space on paper, they rely on their voices from the poem’s genesis. This is why slam poetry is so much more exciting and vibrant than academic poetry readings.
In general, poetic traditions grounded in cultures that are not European are somewhat less prone to fall into Poet Voice. Poet Voice is really a plague of so-called mainstream academic poetry.