Can Actors Read Poetry?

I was just listening to a programme about the Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle on Radio 4, which was interesting but spoiled by terrible readings of the poet’s work. Why on earth does the BBC repeatedly air acted readings of poems that tend to smother the poem beneath a veneer of theatricality? So often the voice comes across as pompous, precious, and suggestive of a nervous, agitated disposition. Are they deliberately trying to reproduce a stereotype of the poetic psyche?

It’s not so much that the BBC hires bad actors. In this case the actor was Sara Kestelman, who has a distinguished career behind her. Poets themselves are often not the best readers of their work, though in many cases they are, and actors are in possession of an array of techniques that would help many poets improve their delivery. So actors ought to be able to do poetry a service. If they don’t manage this, it must be something to do with the approach they or their directors take, rather than with their ability.

In this particular case, Hilda Doolittle’s poems were read in a breathy, dramatic whisper that was probably supposed to sound atmospheric. But I just sat there thinking, ‘What on earth are you doing? Nobody reads poetry like this!’. I was unable to focus on the words. Any atmosphere the poetry might have conjured up was obscured by the atmosphere of the voice. And whatever accents and tones the words might have possessed were squashed by the reader’s tone of voice.

It’s as if actors are more concerned with exhibiting their performance skills than with conveying the material they are supposed to be delivering. Or are directors perhaps not convinced that anyone is really interested in poetry, so instruct their actors to compensate for what they perceive as the lack of content in the words?

This is something I’ve been wondering about for years. My main theory is that actors are used to acting dramatic dialogue, where conventionally every line belongs to a character, i.e. it is the product of a unified personality. Moreover, when scriptwriters write dialogue, they will often be thinking about things like the situation in which the lines are uttered, the objectives of the character, and their relation to the character they are being addressed to.

While some poetry is characterised by these features of dramatic dialogue, very often it isn’t. It’s not always clear who the speaker is in a poem, what the context of its utterance is, and who it’s being addressed to. A lot of the time poetry is multi-accented, that is, its meaning can seem to pull in several different directions, and much of its effect may come from the tension or play between those different orientations. If someone tries to read poetry as dramatic dialogue, they are likely to end up fixing the context and meaning, and therefore lose this kind of tension or play.

This reminds me of Valentin Voloshinov’s discussion of ‘quasi-direct speech’ (nesobstvennaia priamaia rech´, a Russian translation of Gertrude Lerch’s uneigentlich direkte Rede) in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. In quasi-direct speech a single linguistic construction conveys the meanings of two differently oriented voices. An example might be a sentence in a novel that seems to convey the meanings of both the author and a character, and where neither is dominant over the other.

In a discussion of the use of this form of speech in Russian modernism, Voloshinov describes quasi-direct speech as a linguistic phenomenon that is specific to the written word and which cannot be effectively conveyed through speaking:

In the majority of cases, and namely there, where quasi-direct speech becomes a mass phenomenon in the new artistic prose, the acoustic transfer of evaluational interference is not possible. What’s more, the very development of quasi-direct speech is connected with the transition of the major prose genres to a silent register. Only this silencing of prose made possible that multi-levelled and orally unconveyable complexity of intonational structures, which is so characteristic of the new literature. (Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka, 1929, p. 377, my translation. See Part III, ch. 4 in the English edition.)

If you believe Voloshinov, then you might conclude that the reason the BBC broadcasts such terrible acted versions of poems is that it simply isn’t possible to read a lot of poetry out loud properly; oral reading fixes the voice one way or the other, and loses what isn’t fixed.

I disagree. Poets have been finding ways of performing their work in ways that do manage to preserve the lack of centredness and multiple accents their words sometimes carry for decades, possibly centuries (although it’s more of a modern phenomenon). It doesn’t necessarily mean reading in a straight, uninflected way at all, and the more acting skills a speaker has the better they’ll probably be able to carry it off. But it does mean ditching the notion that poetry should be uttered as if spoken by an individual character.

3 Responses to “Can Actors Read Poetry?”

  1. Oliver Mantell says:

    Interesting post (Voloshinov’s ‘quasi-direct speech’ being a result of a ‘silent register’).

    I know what you mean about BBC poetry reading (Poetry Please being a particularly culprit). I take it to be the result of a basic misrepresentation of the range of what poetry is and does: it’s presented to be comfortable and soothing and all rather wonderful, without allowing for it being angular, conflicted, distracted, blunt, challenging, funny, mocking, or the thousand other things it can be. It’s like the selection-bias of Palgrave’s lovely-but-limited Golden Treasury filtered once more for our times. Poetry=lyric=lyrical… although it’s interesting how little of either new poetry or the Canon this approach suits.

    (Perhaps there’s a performance in ‘famous poems read as if by Radio 4’, with Beowulf, Howl, Brecht, Dryden, Pound etc read in a Nigella Lumley style…!)

    I’d also suggest it’s a sign of the (valuable, if limited) niche(s) that poetry’s got in society: a comfort, a moment of pause, a pleasant indulgence. It’s good it can do and be those things, but you and I may prefer its wider range to be more widely available.

  2. Of course, it may not be to do with actors’ approach at all, it could just be the BBC. I’ve hardly ever heard actors reading poetry anywhere except on the BBC, so don’t have any readings from non-broadcast contexts for comparison. Rachael Pennell did a fantastic job of reading an excerpt from a novel by Eve Makis at Word of Mouth earlier this year, to the extent that Eve felt Rachael had shown her something new about her piece, so actors clearly can do a lot for authors. That was prose though. It would be interesting to see it done with poetry too.

    It might also be that poetry readings on radio are low budget; maybe they just give an actor the text without a director to shape the performance.

    Olly, I think I see another variation on the slam format coming from your ‘famous poems read is if by Radio 4’ idea!

  3. Oliver Mantell says:

    Yes – don’t want to sound like I’m knocking Auntie, when they’re the only ones that have poetry at all.

    Actors should be able to shape the performance of a single poem without a director, but perhaps it doesn’t come across well is because, by trade, they work to inhabit a character and much of poetry doesn’t really do that. I’ve also been struck in the past by how badly poets read their work – and not just those who’ve not had much practice, but on recordings of famous old names. I really do think it’s something problematic with the form and the ambiguous ‘who’s-speaking-to-who-ness’ of it (it’s partly why I still prefer poetry on the page).

    I thought that workshop we went to made a good job of making sense of how to read poetry to be more engaging, but without gesture, movement and physical presence, on the radio, it must be more difficult.

    re slam – or ‘read one poet like another’? (The Beowulf poet reads Emily Dickinson; John Cooper Clarke reads Milton…).

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