I found this article written by Cara Giamo (Atlas Obscura) really interesting.
I hope researchers will look at the PSL and use the map to answer to the many questions that still arise from considering the poets' voices. Enjoy!
YOU WALK INTO THE BOOKSTORE. You sit in your folding chair, or on the floor, with your paper cup of wine. The poet approaches the microphone, affably introduces himself, and maybe cracks a joke. He shuffles his papers, launches into his first verse—and all of a sudden, his voice changes completely! Natural conversational rhythms are replaced by a slow, lilting delivery, like a very boring ocean. Long pauses—so long—hang in the air. Try and get comfortable. There’s no helping it. You’re in for a night of Poet Voice.
Many performance-related professions and avocations have developed an associated “voice”: a set of specific vocal tics or decisions. Taken together, these mannerisms make up a kind of sonic uniform, immediately clueing a listener into who or what they’re listening to. There’s “Newscaster’s Voice,” for example, characterized by a slow cadence and a refusal to drop letters. There is “NPR” or “Podcast Voice”, which the writer Teddy Wayne has diagnosed as a “plague of pregnant pauses and off-kilter pronunciations,” and which radio host Ira Glass once said arose in direct response to those butter-smooth anchors.
And then there’s Poet Voice, scourge of the open mic and the Pulitzer podium alike. Unsurprisingly, poets are the best at describing Poet Voice: Rich Smith, in CityArts, calls it “a precious, lilting cadence,” in which “every other line [ends] on a down note,” and there are “pauses, within sentences, where pauses, need not go.” According to Smith, today’s egregious Poet Voicers include Louise Glück and Natasha Trethewey, whose fantastic poems are obscured, in performance, by this tendency of their authors. “Poet Voice [ruins] everybody’s evening,” he writes. “[It is] a thick cloud of oratorial perfume.”
“Poet Voice” is sometimes associated with denizens of this particular MFA program. Marit J. MacArthur has heard her fair share of Poet Voice. As an English professor and scholar, she has been listening to it for years. (Before she heard it called “Poet Voice,” she even developed her own evocative term for it: “monotonous incantation.”) “I just felt like there was a style of poetry reading that I was hearing a lot that sounded highly conventional and stylized,” she says. Although she was annoyed, she was also intrigued: “I became curious about what exactly it was, and why so many people were doing it … I wanted to define it more empirically.”
She started by plumbing the literature, undertaking what she calls “a cultural-historical investigation of where this vocal cliché came from,” and connecting it with both religious ritual and the university’s distaste for the theatrical. “People in academia are just more comfortable with suppression of emotion,” she says. (She collected these insights in a 2016 paper, “Monotony, the Churches of Poetry Reading, and Sound Studies,” published in PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America.)
But this research left her with more questions. So she decided to go deeper. In a new study published in Cultural Analytics, MacArthur and two colleagues, Georgia Zellou and Lee M. Miller, skipped the human middleman and ran various recorded readings through a rigorous sonic analysis. In other words, they tried to use data to nail down Poet Voice.
For the study, the researchers chose 100 different poets—half born before 1960, and half born after—aiming for “a variety of aesthetic educational backgrounds, as well as some ethnic, racial, class, and sexual diversity,” as they write. They found audio and video clips of these poets reading their own poems by scouring websites like PennSound and Poets.org. Then they took the first 60 seconds of these recordings, first chopping off any introductory chit-chat, as most poets use their “normal” voices for that.
Their final data pool includes everything from Mark Strand incanting “Man and Camel” behind a podium at Skidmore College to Audre Lorde performing “1984” in 1992 while seated in a brightly colored armchair in Berlin. (You can find a list of the poets, as well as their demographic information and links to the readings used, in the paper itself.)
Next, they gathered another set of 60-second snippets, this time from the Buckeye Speech Corpus, which is made up of recordings of native Ohioans talking about“everyday topics such as politics, sports, traffic, [and] schools.” This served as a conversational control group, which the researchers called the “Talkers.” (Although it might have been better to compare each poet’s reading voice with their own conversational style, “It proved challenging to find adequate recordings of some of the 100 poets doing anything other than reading poems,” they write.)
The researchers then fed each of these recordings into a series of algorithms that measured various aspects of pitch and timing. They focused specifically on 12 attributes, ranging from simple metrics, such as reading speed and average pause length, to more complicated ones, including pitch acceleration (“how rapidly the changes in pitch change … which we perceive as the lilt of a voice,” the researchers explain) and “rhythmic complexity of phrases,” which measures how consistently a speaker draws out, or doesn’t draw out, groups of words.
Of the 100 poets studied, Juan Felipe Herrera was the most likely to throw in a long pause. By comparing Poets and Talkers along these lines, the researchers were able to draw two overall conclusions. First, when compared to the Talkers, the poets tended to speak more slowly and stay within a narrower pitch range. Second, very few Talkers indulged in long pauses, but plenty of poets—33 percent—had no trouble leaving their listeners hanging for two seconds or more.
And what about Poet Voice more specifically? MacArthur’s own list of notable culprits includes Michael Ryan and Juliana Spahr, as well as the aforementioned Glück and Trethewey. When the researchers compared these poets’ vocal stats with each other, a set of common attributes emerged. “The pitch range tends to be narrower, but that by itself is not enough,” says MacArthur. “It’s also what you’re doing with your voice within a given pitch range.” Devotees of Poet Voice tend to exhibit slow pitch speed and pitch acceleration: in other words, though the pitch may go up and down over the course of the reading, it’s more rolling hills than rollercoaster. “You could think about it almost as the same melody over and over,” says MacArthur. This contrasts with the more conversational or expressive styles of reading exemplified by, say, Amalia Ortizor Rae Armantrout.
This is also, perhaps, why it can seem grating or detached: “In a more natural conversational intonation pattern, you vary your pitch for emphasis depending on how you feel about something,” says MacArthur. “In this style of poetry reading, those idiosyncrasies … get subordinated to this repetitive cadence. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, you just say it in the same way.” Overall, the researchers write, “from this small sample, we would conclude that perhaps when some listeners hear poets read with one or more of these characteristics—slow pitch speed, slow pitch acceleration, narrow pitch range, low rhythmic complexity, and/or slow speaking rate—they hear Poet Voice.”
According to this analysis, the poet Amiri Baraka favors a more conversational reading style. It’s easy to make fun of Poet Voice. But its proliferation across the space of academic poetry may have more serious implications as well. In a 2014 essay, “Poet Voice and Flock Mentality,” the poet Lisa Marie Basile connects it to an overall lack of diversity in the field, and a fear of breaking the mold. The consistent use of it, she writes, “delivers two messages: I am educated, I am taught, I am part-of a group … I am afraid to tell my own story in my own voice.”
Although MacArthur emphasizes that this study is far too small to draw any major conclusions, some of the researchers’ findings so far seem to support the idea that contemporary poets—especially those from marginalized groups—feel pressure to lean into certain aspects of Poet Voice in order to find success in a landscape dominated by white men. “Female poets as an overgeneralization are getting less expressive, but this doesn’t happen on the male side,” says MacArthur. In addition, “some of our most successful younger African-American female poets are the least expressive” according to this analysis, even as the older African-American female poets in the study were the most expressive as a group.
In a response to the study, literature professor Howard Rambsy II wrote that these findings suggest that “perhaps … low expressiveness in poetry readings is one of the requirements of being a major award-winning black woman poet.” MacArthur agrees: “[The results suggest that] there’s something about assimilation to the mainstream, or just success in the mainstream, that encourages a less expressive style,” she says. “That to me was kind of startling. I think there’s something there to investigate, and I will.”
MacArthur is also working to apply the techniques used in this paper to larger samples, and may expand to other genres of performative speech, like radio dramas or political stumping. “These tools help us figure out, what is it that we’re responding to?” she says. “I think there’s a lot of potential for testing our perceptions of speech that we find entertaining, or boring, or engaging, in ways that are very hard to put a finger on.” If nothing else, it’s something to think about around stanza number four, when you start nodding off.
First published in the New Statesman on 2 February 1962.
Had the history of technology meshed a little differently with the history of literature I might now be able to lay reverently on my turntable a thick black 78 rpm with a Globe label reading Will Shaxsper: Sundrie Sonnets (recording supervif’d by my Lord Veralum), and, after a vertiginous crackling pause, hear in almost incomprehensible Elizabethan “From fairest creatures we desire increase,/That thereby beauty’s rose might never die . . .” What should I gain if I could? Concede at once the souvenir value: it would be fascinating as a photograph, or J P Morgan’s lock of Keats’s hair. But would Will’s Warwickshire, or for that matter Wordsworth’s Westmoreland, have any more relevance to my reading of their poems (once my excitement had died down) than Tennyson’s Lincolnshire (which in fact we have) to The Northern Farmer?
Perhaps this is to begin in the middle. But when spoken poetry is mentioned, all my antiquarian rage boils at the thought of the legions of pre-1928 tenors and sopranos we preserved when nobody thought to record, say, Hardy or Lawrence. Others feel differently. “Poets nowadays,” as Mr John Wain, Director of last summer’s “Poetry at the Mermaid”, pointed out in its prospectus, “make records of their work as naturally as they print it. Does this mean that the printed page will cede first place to the living voice?” Is the poem, as it were, the “score” that must be brought to life by performance? Or must we share the dubiety with which Dylan Thomas regarded the whole business of “travelling 200 miles just to recite, in my fruity voice, poems that would not be appreciated and could, anyway, be read in books”?
There are one or two distinctions to be made before an answer can be given. First, however appropriate the medium was for ballads in the rush-strewn hall or Homer smiting his blooming lyre, its public application to modern meditative non-communal poems affects me as the choir of a thousand Boy Scouts reciting “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” did W B Yeats. To re-adopt it would seem to me regression, like moving one’s lips when reading silently. Not that I expect complete agreement: many poets are paranoiac bores, and those impure assemblages known as poetry readings are a wonderful new way of being paranoiacally boring. But as my first axiom I should lay down that the only desirable form of spoken modern poetry is that which whispers in the corner (or corners, these days) in hi-fi.
Secondly, who is to read it? The price of having the poem re-created in the element in which it was conceived (as they say) is the interposing of a new factor, the reader, between me and the poem. He will not read it with the emphases that I should use, and this will irritate me. Or he will have the kind of voice I associate with brown-eyed young men called Frank. Or, if the reader is a lady, she may use that tone so popular among her kind which indicates that in the very act of enunciation she has perceived in the poem an unbelievably obscene acrostic. None of this seems to me an advantage. But suppose it is read by the author? Here a new contention is raised: can one legitimately quarrel with any aspect of an author’s reading of his own poem? Isn’t he supplying a definitive, authoritative rendering from which it will ever after be “wrong” to depart?
Yes and no. I should hate to find myself in agreement with the kind of critic who denies the poet supreme authority regarding his work – seeing nothing in his explanation of a poem, for example, but an attempt to limit its suggestiveness – and for this reason I should contend that if an author has read a passage fiercely, ironically, humorously, sadly, then for ever after to read it softly, idealistically, seriously and gaily will be a smart bit of wrong-headedness, like Hamlet in space-dress. But one’s quarrel with the author’s reading does not usually take this form. To answer “yes” to this question too often commits one for ever after to reading the poem as if it were one of the sections of the Sale and Movement of Poultry (Domestic) Act, 1943. Poets, in fact, too often do their poems less than justice, and why shouldn’t readers who have flexible and expressive voices and have been trained to use them show what music lies in the cold print? One is forced to admit this is legitimate.
Yet, now we are getting more and more examples of authors’ own readings, I doubt whether authors read as badly as they are popularly supposed to do. I remember, for instance, putting on a record of Mr Eliot reading “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” to show an Italian visitor what his voice was like, and though I had intended to stop it after perhaps 30 seconds I found myself letting it go on to the end. And yet Eliot is not supposed to be a good reader. Again, no one could throw his poems away with more contemptuous dryness than Mr Graves, but should we prefer them read with more voluptuous intonation? I think not. Earlier ages said: “The style is the man.” We might add: “And the voice is the style.”
I am a little taken aback to find that Francis Berry had anticipated me in his new book [Poetry and the Physical Voice] with a full-scale contention that “style is voice”:
“A style” has therefore become synonymous with “a private idiom”. But the “style” of an actual speech, of any oral delivery, is as much conditioned by the speaker’s voice as by his choice of language and his individual manner of thinking and feeling. Indeed, it can control his choice of language, his manner of thinking, his rhythms . . .
Mr Berry contrasts the “oes and aes” of Tennyson with the shrillness of Shelley (“I shall never be able to bear his voice – it would kill me” – Hogg): “the poetry of Shelley requires for its saying (and hearing) one kind of voice which Shelley had, and the poetry of Tennyson requires for its saying (and hearing) a quite other kind of voice which Tennyson had”. If a man’s style changes, it may be because his voice changes: “what is called Milton’s late style, in contrast to his early style, records a change of the physical voice. The voice deepened . . .” This is because a poet always thinks of his poems as being read in his own voice – that is, unless he is a dramatic poet such as Shakespeare, when the voices he imagines are those of his company. The fact that the “voice” of the Shakespearean hero ages (Romeo, Hamlet, Lear) may simply be a reflection of the age of Burbage.
Like myself, Mr Berry regrets that technology did not give us sound-recording earlier: “What would we not give for a gramophone record of Wordsworth . . . or of Keats saying his odes? Or of Hopkins declaiming ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’?” But in fact these are unnecessary. For Mr Berry “the last stage of acquaintance with a poet occurs when one can hear the voice in the absence of the text, when the signs on the page no longer act as intermediary but instantaneously conduct”. Subjective? Not a bit of it. The poem’s vowels, mood, pitch and so on “contribute towards, and compel, a timbre and a series of vocal harmonies, that only one voice could produce”.
If I hesitate to call this baloney, it is partly because I cannot disprove it (any more than he can prove it), and partly because I seem to have said something of the sort myself. It is, indeed, easier to go at least part of the way with Mr Berry by instinct than to adduce any real evidence for doing so. To read his book, however, is to realise how many of our assumptions about poetry come from always meeting it in printed form and not in the voice of its author.
The question remains, though: is spoken poetry – poems read by their authors in a way that lets us listen to them without distraction – a good thing? Is it better than reading? I still can’t believe it is. True, one actually hears the rough mouth-music of vowels and consonants and all that, but he is a poor reader who cannot imagine that for himself. It prohibits skipping, perhaps, but equally allows your mind to wander. And if the poem is unfamiliar, how much harder it is to grasp without its punctuation, stanza-shape, and knowing how far one is from the end! These may be the objections of someone hopelessly enslaved by an out-of-date reading technique. Perhaps we should not be regressing if we regained the Elizabethan ability to listen, which enabled them to take in Macbeth as we do Maigret. But for me, in the end, it comes down to a certain restless resentment at having the book taken away from me: I want to do it myself.
Is spoken poetry a bad thing, then – a gimmick of the professor just back from America, a toy for the tired schoolteacher, a way of meeting girls? No, equally strongly. Though I remain convinced that the reader’s first encounter with the poem must be a silent, active one, an absorption of spelling and stanza-arrangement as much as paraphrasable meaning and corrective historical knowledge, there comes a moment with any poem we have really taken to ourselves when we want to hear its author read it. We want to confirm our conviction that he would quicken the pace here, throw away an irony there, or perhaps our curiosity is just for what his voice can add, something we cannot define until we hear it. Well, for such ages as succeed our own this will be possible in the case of poets writing after 1930, and knowledge of them will be richer in consequence.
The most interesting production in this field lately is Donald Davie’s A Sequence for Francis Parkman. Here the publisher, Mr George Hartley, has taken Mr Wain at his word and produced a new kind of book: he offers, in conventional printed form, a sequence of seven new poems by Dr Davie, but in addition he includes in a pocket in the back flap a 7” LP (yes, 33⅓ rpm) of the author reading them. This has never been done before to my knowledge, and I therefore salute a landmark in publishing history. Its only drawback as a medium for publishing new verse is that at present it seems to get sent to the hack that does the records instead of the distinguished critic who notices poetry.
Selected Poems by Louis MacNeice gives the author’s reading of two dozen of his poems plus a section from “Autumn Journal”. Here the voice is not the style – at least, not if you think of Mr MacNeice, as I do, as poetically a sophisticated, almost dressing-gowned figure, dropping epithets into place effortlessly and exactly. His voice is hard and at times harsh, with a lurking Northern Irish accent (suitably exaggerated for “Carrick-fergus”), and makes such poems as “The Sunlight on the Garden” and “Nuts in May” much craggier and more forceful than one remembered them. The “Autumn Journal” extract is so good that one would welcome a record of the whole poem.
And why not? For if John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells is not the whole poem, the cutting is so skilful that one hardly notices. I know that Betjeman, like Peter Simple, Ornette Coleman and frilled evening shirts, makes some people swell up and turn black: if you didn’t like the book, then probably you won’t like the record even more. But for all that this is wonderful reading: even, unhurried, inclining now a little to sanctimony, now to self-reproof; utterly clear; accented at times with a suitable mischievousness. Dylan Thomas’s Quite Early One Morning is equally virtuoso in a noisier and more familiar manner; here the voice and style are indissoluble. Like many Welsh voices, Thomas’s has a rich fraudulence that sets you chuckling even before – perhaps I should say even after – the adjectival combination-punching begins. Certainly Betjeman and Thomas have voices in the platform-entertainer sense, whereas Davie and MacNeice haven’t. It all makes for variety.
The one certain thing is that companies are going to go on issuing records of poets and poetry no matter what the aesthetics of the thing are, and I for one am not prepared to grumble. Take Authopoetry No 1 – British, for instance – readings of a few of their own poems each by Christopher Logue, Thomas Blackburn, Jon Silkin, Charles Causley and Roy MacGregor-Hastie. This is a well-produced record. Whether or not you buy it will depend largely on your estimate on the worth of the poets, but I enjoyed Mr Logue’s Demon King contributions at any rate. And suppose it had been made in 1598 – Thomas Churchyard, Robert Southwell, Thomas Watson, Anthony Munday, and – what was that name again? Will . . . ?
Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a poet, novelist and librarian. He contributed poetry and criticism to the New Statesman in the early 1970s.
"For sound, the last external material which poetry keeps, is in poetry no longer the feeling of sonority itself, but a sign, by itself void of significance, a sign of the idea which has become concrete in itself, and not merely of indefinite feeling and its nuances and gradations. Sound in this way becomes a word as a voice inherently articulated, the meaning of which is to indicate ideas and thoughts. [...] To express these it uses sound indeed, but only as a sign in itself without value or content. The sound, therefore, may just as well be a mere letter, since the audible, like the visible, has sunk into being a mere indication of spirit."
Hegel's Aesthetics, Vol. I, p. 88-89, trans. T.M. Knox
A new entry has been added to the Poetry Sound Library map at: https://www.zeemaps.com/3218677/__douard-L__on_Scott_de_Martinville_(France)
Here's a brief summary of the entry:
Name: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (France)
Address: Rue de la Rochefoucauld
City: Paris, Île-de-France 75009
Description: The first known recording of a human voice, from April 9th, 1860. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.
The Phonautograph Recording from 1860 of 'Au Clair de la Lune'
Sound restoration. In 2008, The New York Times reported the playback of a phonautogram recorded on 9 April 1860.The recording was converted from "squiggles on paper" to a playable digital audio file by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.The phonautogram was one of several deposited by Léon Scott in two archives in Paris and only recently brought to light.
The recording, part of the French folk song Au clair de la lune, was initially played at a speed that produced what seemed to be a 10-second recording of the voice of a woman or child singing at an ordinary musical tempo. The researchers leading the project later found that a misunderstanding about an included reference frequency had resulted in a doubling of the correct playback speed, and that it was actually a 20-second recording of a man, probably Scott himself, singing the song very slowly.It is now the earliest known recording of singing in existence, predating, by 28 years, several 1888 Edison wax cylinder phonograph recordings of a massed chorus performing Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt.
A phonautogram by Scott containing the opening lines of Torquato Tasso's pastoral drama Aminta, in Italian, has also been found. Recorded around 1860, probably after the recording of Au clair de la lune, this phonautogram is now the earliest known recording of intelligible human speech. Recordings of Scott's voice made in 1857 have also survived, but they are only unintelligible snippets.
It has been claimed that in 1863 Scott's phonautograph was used to make a recording of Abraham Lincoln's voice at the White House. A phonautogram of Lincoln's voice was supposedly among the artifacts kept by Thomas Edison. According to FirstSounds.org, these stories are variations of a myth that seems to have first appeared in print in a 1969 book about antique collecting, in which it is explicitly categorized as a legend and dismissed as based on "garbled accounts".There is no solid evidence that such a recording ever existed.The most nearly similar artifact known to have been kept by Edison was a recording of the voice of President Rutherford B. Hayes, captured as a groove indented into a sheet of tinfoil when Edison demonstrated his newly-invented phonograph to Hayes in 1878. Scott did not visit the US in the 1860s and therefore could not have recorded Lincoln himself, as one version of the legend claims he did.Scott's phonautograms were selected by the Library of Congress as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings annually that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". TITLE _Titolo_: Recording from 1860
Marker type:Poets from the past