I’m told that I overthink things. But once you start thinking, simple things can become complicated. So you have to think some more. Take the literary reading. Of course, you have to have one. Even if there are perfectly good print copies available. Or the more convenient electronic ones. Even though a blizzard’s been forecast for that day (or it’s meant to be hellishly hot). Both poetry and prose started with the spoken word, so that must be the more natural, accessible form. Or did the oral and the written diverge somewhere along the way for some really good reasons?
Let’s start with poetry, where how things sound may matter more than with other types of writing. And one of my favorite poems, TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which– à propos this piece–was once called “He do the Police in Different Voices.” The poem is so complex, so full of obscure literary allusions that countless annotated versions exist. There’s even an iPad app for that. (Really.) But look–or rather, listen–to what happens when it’s recited. How easily it goes down, as the commentator observes. First by Eliot himself, which offers insight into how he intended it to be taken. Then by two other readers, who make it their own, much the way that you and I would. Only a bit better.
So anything complex is helped by being heard? Maybe not. Let’s take one of my favorite fiction writers, George Saunders, and one of his recent short stories, “Victory Lap,” which I’ve downloaded from The New Yorker. It opens with a look inside soon-to-be-15-year-old Alison’s head, then shifts to that of a dorky neighbor boy. Listen to Saunders read his own story. If you make it through to the end without your mind wandering to, say, the deer in the woods that I can see from my study window, good for you. But if you’re one of those who can’t quite, see if you don’t breathe a sign of relief when you can click on the link I’ve provided and read this captivating story in words provided on a printed page.
So complex poetry is best heard, and complex prose is best read? Would that it were that simple. Poet Paul Durcan, whose image I’ve inserted above for reasons other than that it’s a formidable head shot–but isn’t it, though?–writes narrative poetry and has been described by Fran Breaton in The Guardian as “… a charismatic performer whose voice, once heard, haunts the printed pages of his books. If there were a prize for the best reader of one’s own poems, he would probably win it hands down.” The only problem is, Durcan says that he doesn’t write to be heard. And we should take him at his word.
Speaking with Colm Tóibín in The Writing Life, a cable TV series produced by our local Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), he insists that he writes not for his public voice but rather for “the silent reader.” That–unlike Yeats, who read his work aloud as he wrote–he never listens to how his poems sound until an entire book is published. And that, as Tóibín helps him formulate, he gives readings only to build an audience specifically for that silence. So, it’s complicated. And requires more thought.
In the meantime, you’d do best to cover all the bases. Attend our upcoming Doubt issue launch reading event to hear 11 authors present pieces we’ve published. Then, talk to the presenters while you munch a cookie and purchase a print copy before you leave. (Hey, the event is free, and a single copy will only put you back 10 bucks.) At your leisure, check out this site’s Winter 2013 Doubt page, where we’ll later link to reading videos, the Sales pages, where we’ll soon offer individual Doubt issues as well as annual subscriptions, and our “Concerning Craft” series, where we’ll introduce you to select Doubt contributors–not just those giving readings–and let them discuss what went into producing what we printed. This time around, I think I’ll ask them to address that sound vs. silence thing.
And since you can’t do any of that until Saturday, January 26, take a little time now to listen to Durcan read his poem “Paul.” And pick up one of his books to read in silence.
- You can view some of the videos from HoCoPoLitSo’s series The Writing Life on YouTube. You can listen to Anthony Hopkins read Yeats and enjoy other intriguing recordings at Poetry Out Loud, where LPR Contributing Editor Linda Joy Burke serves as a coordinator. And you can check out Joshua Ferris’s remarkable reading and discussion of a somewhat simpler Saunders short story (in form, though clearly not in content), “Adams,” on the The Fiction Podcast page of The New Yorker.
- If you enjoyed Saunders’ “Victory Lap,” know there’s more where that came from in his critically acclaimed collection, The Tenth of December, that just came out and includes one of my favorite stories, “Puppy.” Joel Lovell’s review pretty much says it all in the title: “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.”
- If you enjoyed Durcan’s brogue and plan to be in the Columbia, MD area on March 1, join us for HoCoPoLitSo’s 35th Irish Evening, featuring Colum McCann, author of the award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, and traditional Irish music and dancing. Tickets purchased before February 1 are $30 each, $35 subsequently.