Poetry Out Loud Advice from Mr. Lally

Don’t oversell your poem. Let your recitation be about the poem and not about the performance. Here’s a pair of readings of Stevie Smith’s excellent poem, “Not Waving But Drowning” – the first one projects the poem accurately, the second one reveals a performer who is working far too hard to make the poem about him. I am not encouraging monotonous, flat readings. Not at all. But don’t turn your poem into an audition tape for a 1940s radio drama.

Video #1 – Please excuse the adult contemporary jazz music and the intergalactic voyage – I’m not really sure what either adds to the poem – but note how the speaker manages to hit the emotional points of the poem without devolving into caricature or unnatural speech. Besides, she’s British, and that automatically makes the poem sound better, as we all know.

Video #2 – Note the unnatural and over-the-top tone shifts, the condescending assault on subtlety that suggests that we could not ever possibly make sense of this poem without his expert help. I sincerely doubt this reader sounds like this in his normal life. Unless he is speaking to a dog, or trying to entertain small children. Your poetry recitation is not for dogs, nor small children.

In preparing your poems, please resist watching Youtube videos of people reciting your poem. It is far more likely you will run into something like the second video here, with its overwrought theatricality. And if you do use recordings as an aid, JUST LISTEN … AVOID WATCHING THE VIDEO – it is probably filled with facial reactions that look like a silent film star at work, and have hands flapping away erratically like birds tied to a tree. Please. Think of the audience.

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