Monday, September 17, 2018

The Spoken Word

Back in February, a script I submitted was broadcast on an Irish radio show. I'm not going to name it, as I'm going to be mildly critical of it here, and I don't want its staff coming across this blog post. I'm not going to give my piece's title or link to the recording, for the same reason.

I reproduce the script below, in the form I submitted it. (It's very short). But before you read it, I want to say that this is a very heartfelt piece. The ideas and emotions it expresses are very strongly held. In fact, this is why I've been thinking about the subject today-- the atmosphere of the sort of shop I'm describing here keeps coming into my mind. Well, goes:

The term “Hallmark holiday” is a term of disparagement. So is the term “chocolate box”, when it’s used as an adjective—“chocolate box emotions”, for instance. And yet, for all that, I never walk into a greeting card shop without falling into a mood of deep serenity, or even of tenderness. I think they are much underpraised, and deserve to be defended.

The aroma that fills the air of greeting card shops is the most immediately distinctive thing about them—an aroma of scented candles. Scented candles are funny things. They don’t actually give off much scent when they are lit—when you are trying to smell their scent, it’s hardly there. But when they catch you by surprise—like when you walk into a greeting card shop, or when you remember some moment you spent in a greeting card shop—the scent seems overwhelming, flooding your memory and soul. This could be a metaphor for so many things, from national character to romantic love. 

I like greeting card shops because I like looking at the shelves and reflecting that every single purchase in them is going to make somebody feel happy, or loved, or at the very least remembered. Even people who pretend to be indifferent to birthday cards, to Valentine’s cards, to Christmas cards, or to Thank You cards, are—I firmly believe—lying, even if they are lying to themselves.

Gestures are the currency of love, the currency of respect, the currency of belonging. I remember, in my teens, crying over a passage in Oscar Wilde’s essay De Profundis, when Wilde wrote about the occasion—after his conviction—when he was surrounded by a hostile crowd, in the midst of which one loyal friend raised his hat to him. Years later, when I read King Lear, I felt a ferocious sympathy with Lear himself, when he divides his kingdom amongst his three daughters, and asks each of them to tell him how much she loves him. His youngest daughter Cordelia, not wanting to flaunt her love for the sake of reward, refuses to match her sisters’ extravagant claims—and the entire tragic series of events that make up the plot of this darkest of plays is set in motion. Cordelia is the play’s heroine, but I think that generations of readers have wondered why she had to be so cruel, why she couldn’t just give the old man the words he craved.

Of course, there are more than greeting cards in greeting card shops. There are teddy bears, chocolate boxes, mugs, helium balloons, and all manner of merchandise which a cynic could call overpriced trash. Many of the trinkets bear mottoes or quotations of the inspiring kind: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”, “Believe in the magic of your dreams”, “Love me when I really need it, because that’s when I most deserve it”.

Now, I love classic poetry. I love Lord Alfred Tennyson and Philip Larkin and W.B. Yeats. I realise that subtlety and restraint and ambiguity are the stock-in-trade of the poet, that the poet strives to communicate timeless ideas in a fresh and original way. I realise that there is a difference between “in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” and “believe in the magic of your dreams.”


But I can’t help it—in fact, I don’t really want to help it. The slogans that I encounter in greeting card shops often reduce me to tears. Whenever I’ve admitted this to anyone, they think I’m being provocative or ironic or contrarian, when I’m telling the God’s honest truth. And I think there’s an important point at stake.

Here is the important point. It’s understandable, and it’s desirable, that poets and writers and others should wish to express themselves in an original way, and that they should seek original ideas to express. But I think that we are in a perpetual danger of straying too far from the primary emotions, the simple truths, the obvious sentiments—what I might call the daily bread of humanity. This isn’t just a danger for poets and writers, but for all of us.

Greeting card shops seem to me like a huge fireplace where we can warm ourselves on that obviousness, that simplicity, those elemental emotions. Yes, they deserve far more praise than they get.

Well, there is the script.

My father encouraged me to submit scripts to this show. I was rather reluctant. He said: "Do it for six weeks and, if nothing happens, you can say you tried." So I did pretty much exactly that. Most of my scripts weren't very good. It was many months later that I got a call from the show. They asked me to come in (the next day!) and record it.

I was very excited. I'd never been inside a working radio studio and it was an experience I felt I'd missed out on. I'd been in a few television studios in recent times, but no radio studio. Also, I was pleased at the idea of having my work broadcast on a national broadcaster-- it was a confidence booster. 

The studio was only a short walk from my workplace, so I took a few hours off and headed down.

I sat behind a glass window, with the producer and the sound engineer sitting opposite to me, and the producer speaking to me through headphones. (Actually, at one point she advised me to take the headphones off, since I would still be able to hear her voice coming through them, and wearing headphones impedes how we speak.) And so we fell to recording the script.

We did take after take. Sometimes the producer asked me to repeat particular paragraphs or sentences, over and over again. And her directions were always the same; speak faster, use more emphasis, highlight the humorous passages with a more comical tone.

I admit I was a bit disappointed. It might be a bit vain to write this, but people have often complimented me on my voice. Once, at Mass, a woman turned around in the pew in front of me and said: "You have a lovely voice." I always thought I had a good radio voice, and a good radio delivery. The producer obviously thought I was some distance from her ideal! Also, I'd gone into the studio with one idea foremost in my mind: to speak slowly. I was convinced the temptation would be to race through it. But even when I deliberately spoke faster, it wasn't fast enough!

However, I assumed the professionals knew what they were talking about, and that I would hear the proof of this in the end product.

Well, as you can guess, that's not how it happened at all. When I listened to the broadcast, I winced all the way through. I hated how I sounded on the radio! And it wasn't just a case of cringing at the sound of my own voice, as we all do. I specifically hated the way I delivered the piece-- how much emphasis I put into it, how exaggerated it seemed to me. I've never listened to it again, though it's available on the internet, and I doubt I ever will.

I have my own views on the proper reading of literary texts. I started reading poetry in a serious way when I was about fourteen. I would read anthologies of poetry slowly, reading each poem to myself over and over and over again, and often covering the name of the author so I wouldn't be influenced by reputation. 

As I did this, I "heard" the voice of the poet in a very particular way, though I only realized this years later. The voice I heard was a male voice (although, come to think of it, I might have heard a female voice when it was a female poet). Male or female, it always spoke in the same tone-- steady, formal, neither slow nor fast, and almost without emphasis. And it always spoke in standard English, not with any particular accent. (I utterly detest dialect poetry.)

The voice in my head, reading poetry, always paused for line breaks, even for run-on lines. That's still how I read poetry.

I can't bear listening to a poet or actor reciting a poem and making heavy weather of it. It makes me cringe. Actors are particularly culpable in this regard. They want to put their stamp on a poem, to make it a performance.

Is this just a personal preference of mine? Perhaps it is, but it's not a random one. It reflects my underlying view of poetry, which was well expressed by John Stuart Mill:

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener...

All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy. It may be said that poetry, which is printed on hot-pressed paper, and sold at a bookseller's shop, is a soliloquy in full dress, and upon the stage. But there is nothing absurd in the idea of such a mode of soliloquizing. What we have said to ourselves, we may tell to others afterwards; what we have said or done in solitude, we may voluntarily reproduce when we know that other eyes are upon us. But no trace of consciousness that any eyes are upon us must be visible in the work itself. The actor knows that there is an audience present; but if he acts as though he knew it, he acts ill. A poet may write poetry with the intention of publishing it; he may write it even for the express purpose of being paid for it; that it should be poetry, being written under any such influences, is far less probable; not, however, impossible; but no otherwise possible than if he can succeed in excluding from his work every vestige of such lookings-forth into the outward and every-day world, and can express his feelings exactly as he has felt them in solitude, or as he feels that he should feel them, though they were to remain for ever unuttered.

I believe this. I believe it holds true even in the case of dialogue poems, and poems which by their very nature would seem to require a more declamatory style. 

I also dislike the use of heavy regional accents in poetry recitation. I realize this might put me under suspicion of being a snob, but I don't care.

Don't get me wrong. I love accents. I rejoice in the diversity of accents in the world. I don't think anyone should suppress their accent.

But, in recent times, we seem to have seen (or rather, heard) a cult of regional accents which is altogether excessive. It seems as though people are actually exaggerating their accents as some sort of socio-political statement.

I'm against this because it's ugly. No matter what your accent, you can modulate it. There is a proper way of pronouncing words. Shapeliness is generally considered beautiful, while distortion is considered ugly, and I think it's true of speech. There is such a thing as being "well-spoken" and I think poetry should be recited in a well-spoken voice.

Given all that, I was rather disappointed with my solitary airing on radio. And doubly disappointed, since the subject is one close to my heart. My script was prose, not poetry, but I think the same principles apply, especially as it was a very introspective sort of prose.


  1. I did read one thing recently that claimed that we hear our own voices at a deeper pitch than is the actual reality, meaning that, for one, we should always speak at a lower pitch than we would first think

  2. I have been meaning for ages to get round making a comment on this article. It's all very interesting — I quite often wonder about the sound of poetry, and how it should be read. It is more complicated than it might seem. I hammered out my thoughts here — — about the sensation of hearing one of my favourite poets (John Masefield) reading his own poetry, and finding that I didn't enjoy it!

    I too find myself irritated by exactly what you describe — a tendency among some readers to 'put [their] stamp on a poem, to make it a performance'. Anything that is exaggerated, over-emphasised, overdone. This is why I hardly ever listen to poetry recitals on the radio or go to poetry readings, even though poetry — indeed the sound of poetry — is tremendously important to me. I even think I prefer to read written poetry (never on screen) and to imagine it being read aloud, in a voice, not mine, that is much as you describe.

    Perhaps the clearest way of saying what I mean is to compare it to music. After all, poetry is music made of meaning. A performance of music is not all about the performers. The effort by many soloists to prove by their expressions and movements just how much the music means to them often bothers me, even if it is genuine. My feeling is that if the composer has done a good job, and the musician is well-trained the music ought to come out naturally — freely. All the hard work has been left behind in the study or practice-room: now is the moment to take flight.

    It's the same with poetry, I think. If a poem is well-written, it ought to sound natural when read aloud. It cannot quite be read as if it is natural speech — it cannot trip off the tongue — but I think it should flow off the tongue. Poetry should sound like natural speech, heightened, as I think Hopkins said; full of life. It has to sound both utterly sincere and utterly free of self-consciousness, too — as John Stuart Mill says in the passage you quote, which I was very interested to read. That's the poet's high and hard calling: to make music of meaning, and to make words that sound as all prose will in Heaven.

    Another point still is that music nor poetry are not chiefly about the performer, nor even about the composer or poet. The performer, however skilled, is only the messenger. And the composers and poets, too, are only messengers: they often describe their craft as working out something that already existed. Perhaps one approach to this question, is to think of art as another way for us to serve each other: the poet at the service of readers, the readers approaching the poem with due reverence and patience, and the performer mediating between the two.

    Thank you for the article!

    1. I don't know much about music, but insofar as I do, I feel the same. I hate it when singers play around with the words or style of a beloved classic, just to make it "theirs"'.

      I agree emphatically with everything you say in your comment (for which many thanks), except perhaps the bit about music and poetry not being about the composer and poet. In a way, I think it is. At least, I think of poetry (at least) being profoundly personal. I don't often quote Whitman, but I do like his line: "When I give, I give myself." I now read back on third-person poems I wrote in my twenties with some embarrassment. I don't think you can write from any perspective except your own, or a universal one. At least in poetry. However, perhaps I still agree with you in that the poem still isn't "about" the person, but about whatever the subject matter is, no matter how personal.

      Perhaps our mutual dislike of over-emphasis explains why you are such a quintessential Englishman and I am such an anglophile!

    2. Perhaps I mean that it is not only about the composer or the poet, in a limiting sense. I agree with you that art should be a sincere craft and that composers and poets should 'give themselves', but there is an aspect of their work that lies beyond even sincerity; that transcends even their selves. I am sure there is a divine aspect to it all; that artists are being given a 'go' at the reins of Creation.

      Perhaps it does explain a lot! Though I don't mind our evident emphatic agreement!

    3. "Beyond even sincerity". "Transcends even their selves". How well put! I agree!