There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading

Paul Durcan

Poet Paul Durcan (Photo: Susanne Schleyer)

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.


8 thoughts on “There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading

  1. Dylan Bargteil

    I have discussed this several times with one of my closest friends and favorite poets. We approach the issue from opposite directions. He is a natural performer and has been in operas, plays, and comedy sketches. While I have equally as much experience performing, I have never felt I command the charisma and dynamics that he does, and so with him as inspiration I have been working towards creating more for listeners as well as readers. The performance itself is an equally creative act as the writing, which is why it’s even interesting to read in the first place – because as a reader you must take on the creative performance role in your interaction with a given written work. (This is not to say listening audiences are bereft a creative role – but the interactions are obviously different for listening versus reading.)

    Great subject for this article.


    1. Ilse Munro

      And I nearly said something about writers who are musicians in this piece! So even that is complicated. For another poet-musician with a connection to LPR, check out Truth Thomas (see the playlist in the sidebar–will be adding to that, BTW). Truth has a great new poetry book out (, but I don’t think you can fully appreciate the poems until you hear him read them (see the video link in the piece). But we can get into that in greater depth later, since MUSIC is the theme of our summer issue.


  2. Clarinda Harriss

    Anybody who writes anything, and I do include grocery lists with their own particular lilt, should read this piece and ponder it. Ilse’s at her lively and perceptive best, but at one point I must disagree: I refuse to take Paul Durcan at his word about not writing to be heard. Gawdamighty, LISTEN to the man as he rolls and savors his words, and well he might. The only writers whom I actually believe do not care about the sound of their words are writers of Concrete Poetry and writers who are overly dependent on things you can’t say aloud. In my own writing, I avoid including “etc.” because you can’t say etc. If I mean et cetera, I write et cetera. That’s why I gave up the youthful tic of & for “and.” The “nd” is a fine little workout for tongue and teeth; so give that consonant cluster its due! Moi-meme, I never understand what’s going on i anything I write till I hear it out loud. Sometimes my voice reading it is NOT the voice I am hearing in my head, which signals me to do some adjusting.

    For a good time, listen to Yeats reading from his work in his late years. A soprano quavering voice it’s hard to believe Once my friend the brlliant poet Bruce Sager sneaked into my house (he was a great favorite of my then-young kids) and put on my turntable a recording of Yeats reading/singing in that surreal voice “I shall arise and gooooooooo nooooooooo. . . .” so that it was the fifst thing I head whilst bringing the groceries. It took me years to recover.


  3. Pingback: Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard | Little Patuxent Review

  4. Pingback: What it Means to be a Musician and a Poet: Truth Thomas | Little Patuxent Review

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