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The Americans are always doing research into how we function. What happens in our organism. They study the prose of us. Erica Michael and Marcel Just conducted brain scans during conscious acts by human subjects to discern brain activity and especially brain plasticity. This particular work quoted was done to test, among other things, that central idea of Marshall McLuhan: that the medium is the message. To quote:

They showed that different brain areas are involved in hearing speech and reading it, and (they stress this) different comprehension centres… in hearing words and reading them. ‘The brain constructs the message differently for reading and listening. The pragmatic implication is that the medium is part of the message. Listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does. A newscast heard on the radio is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper.’

This from the recent book The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (doesn’t that surname sound like a Brooklyn accent?). I notice they interchange the terms ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’ without making any distinction between these two acts. However, they are discussing the hearing of words, just speech, but we are thinking about Poetry. Quite a different genre. So, now, to drop a fancy Frenchman into this talk … Jacques Derrida says somewhere (now this phrase, ‘says somewhere’ signifies Salom is not an academic, who would say where) Derrida suggests … that ‘genre announces itself’. That the writing participates in genre, writing within a form calls to us and says: I am this genre.

This genre (this morning) is speaking … and speaking about hearing, specifically hearing the genre of poetry, but I’m not reading poetry I am speaking about it and I’m not always going to read from a speech either, but speak from my thoughts about how poetry says – I am poetry– and how poetry is heard rather than read.

The Wombats of Bundanon - book cover

Charles Bernstein, the American Language poet, does not like poetry to be performed. He says reading and hearing poetry aloud changes/subtracts from the languaged unity of poetry. That is, poetry is linguistic, the medium is words as read and not words performed. I understand this. I have observed ludicrous readings – that I call ‘actings’– of the sort that would have made him retch. However, I have also heard him read a poem that is all irony, praising conventional poetry and sincerity, and him reading this deadpan– as if he meant it. It’s a joke using insincerity or irony to parody apparent sincerity and it really works best read aloud. Still. It illustrates how we can skew a reading, create a rhetorical affect that is aural rather than logical, it appeals to our mood, our emotional response rather than to intellectual argument – or even sense.

My thesis is that one recognises most poetry immediately when hearing it. And then, if we like poetry, we listen. We don’t need to see the particular poem on the page. But we need to have encountered poems before or genre means nothing. It announces itself. Because we have encountered it before we hear this announcement: I am a poem. I am very different from prose and especially different from ordinary speech. There are poets who like to seem as plain speakers but even they are more ordered than the vernacular and heteroglossic disorder of most speech. Order is the key.

And that we can hear this difference between poetry and speech is for me one of the fundamental powers of heard rather than read. Because when we hear aloud we have a very complex physical sense of sound and time – time, the medium sounds works in. Reading is less somatic, less bodily. In medicine and pharmacology they refer to the ‘up-take’ of drugs, medications, etc. I find this term interesting to use when considering poetry read aloud. because for all that I’m going to say, up-take is much less clear than it might at first seem. We hear. So, what do we hear?

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The voice itself

Some general points to begin. The spoken voice – and by this I mean vocalising– affects us immediately because we respond to fellow creatures, and the voice is us, we listen for meaning in it just as we look for meaning in the face (the face too is us… ). It is primal in a way reading isn’t. Physical voice adds its own meanings to intellectual meaning because it is expressive of our daily sense of being, and of feeling, of things not stated directly and of things significant beyond the logical. When poetry is performed aloud these are more obvious, hopefully, but also more directed. And we evaluate them because we also feel the authority of the speaking– the very thing Bernstein did not want because it leads, because it tells us, because it claims the meaning, because it can be so powerful it stops us making our reading the language of the poem. Whereas the act of reading is to infer a voice– and in poetry this is also a term, ‘voice’ signifying the poet’s manner, the literary signature in the actual work– so when we read we are displacing that ‘voice’ into the not-quite vocalised element of a voice. I say not-quite because we are doing this voice internally and because it is more subtle and various than the external, ‘heard’ vocalising. We put our own voice (or voices, nuances, and more of this later) to the words. Though many people cannot, of course, or they seem poor at this. For them the heard poem is maybe essential. The sound. The mind-body of us. The word made flesh. It is also plainly enjoyable, this vocalised poem working through our senses, it is a thrill. It works on us through:

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Emotional colouring
Change of accent
Also the flip and the fast, the jazzy, the playful, humorous, etc.

So, when reading your own poetry aloud you must make choices regarding these; it’s unavoidable, what speed, what lightness or fullness of voice, the tone, how much gravity… or do you just read everything exactly the same? (My God. Because some poets do.) This choosing is done from among various probabilities and so the single performance must, in being itself, erase other possible performances, which again brings in authorial interpretation. In contrast, inner hearing is so subtle it can shift registers in ways an uttered voicing cannot. It is like dreaming in this, in the key-changes and impurity (tone-shifting) of its aural logic. Sometimes this inner sounding and outer vocalising meet and clash: listen to someone else read your poems aloud. In Perth in the mid 80s I was startled to hear on tape a poet reading one of my poems at a live reading. He chose a poem I wouldn’t have and he read it VERY slowly and deliberately, syllable at a time. It was alien to me. I thought it was awful. Then it grew on me, it was terrific. It was astonishing. Seeing him a few days later, it was impossible not to ask: what in the poem made him do that, how had he chosen this style of reading? He said: I was pissed.

I have seen grown men refuse the microphone like a baby refusing the nipple, but with the audience going hungry. No voice. I saw a particular poet doing this at several events, saw, because I couldn’t hear him. I heard a poet stand and perform despairing poems of suicidal gesture in a wailing voice so many times and at so many readings that we could only hear the sounds and the familiar gestures and finally someone yelled out: just go and do it! For all the mumblers I’ve also heard shouters, and whisperers, sometimes two poets performing this together; I’ve watched sexual braggarts, male and female, putting on the raunch, but unconvincingly. Sometimes the heard poem not only becomes the dominant interpretation of the poem; it may actually erase the poem. You remember the performance. One thing worse than that…. I have heard a poet like Paul Durcan make audiences weep with sadness and then laugh at a sudden witticism in his melancholy but also very funny work  the poems on the page the ghosts of his memorable aural displays. But he is such a virtuoso on stage, hardly moving, eyes shut, all voice, all affect… that we called reading with him (well, before him, he reads last) being Durcanised: his reading erases all memory of the previous readers.

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(During my talk at Sydney I performed two different pieces in the theatrical mode of the poets involved, but I will cut that: you needed to be there, that is, you needed to hear it.)
I know of a poet whose quavering performances are astonishingly bad. He likes to sound: sincere! profound! This man’s heart is not merely on his sleeve –  emotion comes out of him like ectoplasm. He is moved … by his own poetry. We can feel this in a way we might miss …on the page …or maybe miss altogether because it was never there in the words. The phrases sound like poetry but there is little more going on, so poetry heard can be deceptive when that which works on us aurally is in the mode of poetry but not in the rigour of it. This is not merely rhetoric but habitual sentimentality. Even Richard Burton making us weep over the phone book might be a more substantial experience. Dylan Thomas? A great poet who meant… sometimes not a great deal. But made us feel as if he did. Some poets have said that makes him a great poet. He is an exception – a technical perfectionist, a maker of wild imagery, an exciter. His readings were the sound, they were visceral language.

And this is just the sound. Music is obviously a relative of poetry, though hard to say how close. The aural qualities they share are:
bodily – visceral stimulation
emotional – though often at abstract levels
harmony and dissonance
(using) silence
a high degree of order

Unlike reading, and re-reading back into and through the poem, playing with the inner sound and sense, a live performance is heard once, just once, so the affect is determined by this single event. We hear. What do we hear?

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Order (yes, order itself. We can discern it)

* Rhythm – in a poem rhythm is more obvious and more connected, it is closer, it feels deliberate (because it is) and is more repeated than in speaking. Even the vowels sound different, the time between vowel and consonant is more noticeable, and a lot of poetry is more ‘consonantal’ than speech. It alters us. It works on the body, of course, the viscera, and rhythm perhaps more than any other characteristic tells us we are listening to poetry. Happy and jumpy as speech may be it lacks this unified sense of being made, ordered, connected.

* Music– here I mean the ways vowels and consonants work in a closer shaping than usual and by doing so create a harmony or disharmony of sound and how this works on us – both obviously in that we know it and subliminally in that we may not.

* Pauses – yes, temporal silence-sound, used to shape the poem in time, as do lines and line breaks therefore. And by silence I mean silence as part of the rhythm …not merely as lack of sound.

* Phrasing – in poetry this is more deliberate; it is multiple in meaning, and affect; and, heard, it is given to us like speech that is not speech – and that is important and makes the phrasing and the poem strange.

* Line – and by implication, through our hearing of phrasing and pause, we assume the line. Not always accurate though quite possible. The line is the single most obvious visual-textual indicator of a poem. It is the most basic of the controlled choices – the length and order of – any poet makes. I knew a poet who was a very good reciter of his poems and it occurred to me over a few months, that he was performing poems with shorter lines than usual for him. Looking at the poems on the page surprised me: his lines were all long, and regular in rhythm, he was still the formalist I’d thought he was, but he wasn’t reading them like that any more. Eventually he acknowledged these shorter lines in the actual text.

* Repetition– firstly as rhyme when rhyme is used, as repetition of like sounds, and generally as a fundamental to poetry and song in using refrain, emphasis, patterning and like rhyme and rhythm very powerful, more powerful heard than read because it keeps performing in us.

And now to listen (well, here you have to read them aloud) to some excerpts.

The Wombats of Bundanon - book cover

from The Arrival of the Bee Box (Sylvia Plath)

I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.

Notice the repetition of “this” and then “it” so the box’s it-ness becomes emphatic and strange. And that narrow vowel sound – i. Then alternating between this shortest of all sounds with long vowels in ordered, clean, square (and echo in) chair, almost, too, square again– but as the bees’ compression inside the box becomes the point, and the inner energy of life/death under confinement becomes the psychic pressure, the lines close in on that skinny i sound: it, coffin, midget, a din in it. Then again the next stanza. The heard element is enacting, is, the compression. An odd, claustrophobic squeeze.

Then as the poems frees up and the pressure comes off, the vowels lengthen:

I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary

In the wonderful Slessor poem we hear his love of the u (as in club) and o (as in sob) and the merging of these and similar sounds into a kind of deeply elegiac music. A kind of gravity.

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from Beach Burial (Kenneth Slessor)

Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.

Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness

His measured poem is an elegy and the stateliness, the formal quality of it, is made sensual by these long, elegant vowels, by their repetitions, by internal and external rhyme. They are watery sounds too and combined with the visual and kinetic effects they achieve an extra-ordinary tactile quality (look especially at line eight). They make the poem more tender, more sensual, more respectful (yes?) and even more intimate – despite the dead sailors being unknown. This is a major aural achievement: making the objective, collective deaths feel individual, personal, intimate.

Elegy specifically refers us back, to the dead having been alive, and it is therefore an especially retrospective signification. There is only one reading, but now, within the poem, there are two times, at least. Perhaps there are more. Perhaps poetry itself is a multi-time frame. Or a multi-frame of time. I have often felt when listening to a poem – not reading, but listening– that I am hearing represented there a return of some kind, not a déjà vu but perhaps an element of Derrida’s trace, perhaps a psychoanalytic return, the poem as a child-of-us, a fable, a child-rhyme half-remembered the first time and the one time we have heard it, paradoxically, in this new poem we are listening to. This apprehension in me can even feel like a nostalgia but a nostalgia for something that wasn’t, a return to a place that isn’t, or a narrative or a set of perceptions that had no past but feel as if they did. And now are gone. If so, then are all poems elegiac?

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* Metaphor – the use of phrases that arrest by comparison, and the tension between new perception, appropriateness and also difference in their invention. Poets, as Aristotle said, can be valued according to their powers of metaphor. They arrest us. They are other ways of perceiving and even thinking. They are poetry.

They can be quite spontaneous. I was down at Sale recently, with some friends, one of whom was the novelist Marion Campbell. She was already standing looking at a small-walled, curved sculpture in the town. As I approached I said: It looks like a pissoir for a dwarf and she laughed and said Me too! I just called it a urinal for midgets. (Very incorrect of us!) But then I thought about the sounds and wondered whether it should be a urinal for a dwarf ? or even a pissoir for midgets ? or… ?

* Images and Imagery– these begin to work on us by pattern and arrangement that is too deliberate but may also feel odd, enough for us to stop and consider it. We do, I think, see the image more clearly when we hear it (different comprehension centres…) so I respond to the idea that the brain makes the image sensory/visual when heard but understands it more intellectually/for meaning when read. It does for me. For many, reading poems is like dreaming and the poem, like the dream, sometimes comes through without a sound-track– and yet there is one, so by reading the poem aloud, hearing poetry, we are putting the sound back into the dream.

* Thought, wit and emotion all packed in together can be read through tone and speed.

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Emotion (but under control – and that is the important bit. We can hear it well)

* This is a tricky one and often only a live reading can ‘get it’ the way feeling and emotion are controlled, so they are present, they are accumulating in the poem, but there is no shouting or crying. Not yelling or angry or even obvious at first, but building more like music and therefore this can with skilled performance become very affective. And cast doubt in the way that a suspension on line-ends or at the end of the poem can leave us hanging… unanswered. The haunting and the subliminally significant feelings. And knowing the lack of an answer is the emotion of the poem.

* Sound and sense together – the satisfaction or sense of well-being – and growing from this: the order in the sounds rather than excited-ness. The sobriety perhaps more telling than the stimulation. Also, of course, the wrench that comes of deliberate dissonance and disorder. This may both un-nerve and please at the same time. Below I will mention register as speech types but there is also register as emotional nuance, come of sound effects such as the kind referred to in the sample poems. Very subtle. Sometimes too subtle for the performer, in fact. Those shadings, intonations, tempi, the interpretations and changes of, within the poem, that are too various and strange to voice aloud, that cannot be done with the vocal chords, or which do not ‘make sense’, but are available (and therefore only available) to the inner voicing.

* Fakery, sentimentality – all too common. And it can be hollow emotion, or gauche, or phoney, which allows into poetry a lot of weird poems and weirder people. You know some. Not always aware of their weirdness.

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This is the main area we know best through private reading – where reading and re-reading is an essential for the more intellectual content. Some poets are erudite and discursive and hard to hear at readings. Sometimes they are easier to hear. A hard call this one. Some thoughts about thought, though:

* Displacements – there can come to the mind, though, things simply not ‘heard’ by silent reading. The way certain sounds and references join up in puns, riddles, aural displacements even, which emerge in the heard. An example from my own work. In 1996 my father died after years of progressive dementia. During this time I was one of the family who had hand-fed him and I often played word-games and entertainments for him. It was a strange reversal. Later that year I wrote an Elegy for him, a part of which I would like to quote now:

My right shoulder has been heavy all night.
I dream I’ve slept in a hull dragged onto a bank.

The river gleams like the river gleamed on the farm
but never again that river, never again that child.

But my father is still my father, even if I see him
naked, pink, his lower face formed into a beak

and he is huddled on the packed earth, shuddering
off the seasons in fast and wild cries, shaman, bird-man

and dying, dementia his last unworldly trance.
I hold him in my arms so he won’t fall back

awkwardly into the dirt. But he is pink and strange
and cries because I have never held him in my life.

His beak is broken, showing teeth, and I cry, hold him
as the sky floods the shelter, as the words go cold,

bird in the bird-man’s hut, the sun and the river lifting
both of us from grief. Somewhere the rowlocks creaking.

Something out there on the water. When I
turn again onto my hull, his body in the boat

is like a memory of a catch, or a swan,
like a flash of light in the heart, dimming.

I used this image of a dream shaman (which had literally come from a dream, poets are so often metaphorical) to portray his shocking loss of powers – the shaman losing his power, vision, even his ability to eat – its transgression of parent-child order and, within the poem, its transgressive intrusion into, and rupture of, the more measured, elegiac style and sentiment of the larger poem (not quoted here). Only months later, reading this poem aloud did I hear the sound in that word shaman… as shame-man. It was my own aural, psychological, pun of transgression at a different level – the son’s deeper feelings of shame when he sees the loss of power in the father and, crucially, accepts it to passing to himself. You do not have to be a Freudian to consider this.

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Complex effects require close reflection and often a kind of cross-listening within the poem, within a multiple of overlapping time, that is, and here a live reading has only one time, time moving over and through the poem once, to be heard. A disadvantage. Still, we can hear:

* Organised dis/organised observation – with gaps everywhere and the overall point maybe never stated, or wildly not-as-expected. We can tell both hearing and reading that the poem progresses not by logic and rhetorical development of a point of view. The what-for may be more sustained, all questions or empathy and very little or even no conclusion. Poetry is not debating. A poem may say it just so but also leave us wondering, because it approaches mystery, embodies mystery and does not explain.

* Thinking – no, not conventional logic … but poetry can be heard to think aloud, to analyse and even to make statements. Heard in this way people often carry it for years, as a strangely worded statement or description they do not forget. It may be a quality of empathy or a positioning or patterning of ideas and images that tell us something more intuitively than plainly prosaic but also limited logic. Limited, that is, by the usual rules of language: correct grammar, syntax and sense. Maybe poetic language at its own level of individual syntax, the poet’s own (that is), syntax and thinking, does require reading but sometimes hearing it puts the oddities together and as some evidence of this – think of ALL the times someone has said (and I have ) ah, now that I hear your read aloud – I can make sense of your poem. Even, your poetry

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* Glossia/Heteroglossia – the speech registers and the mix and manner of them, high and low tones and reference, jargon and vernacular. Argot. Many people cannot notice these in the poem on the page and are surprised when the poet sounds them as different registers at a live reading. Skilled reading required. And reading privately for register shifts is also an art.

* Intertexuality – influences, deliberate referencing and representing, quoting, echoing, pastiching: knowing as we hear it that we have heard this before, heard it before, been in similar places in other poems, in other genres. Hearing a poem which is a homage to another poet or poem, without that acknowledgement, can produce another kind of déjà vu, unlike the kind I mentioned earlier, and stronger for not being acknowledged. Sometimes, often, the poet isn’t even aware of an influence, or parallel, or that they are actually re-writing someone else’s poem! The listener hears it. Things in themselves, being themselves, being recognised as such.


I haven’t begun to speak of composition. The inner listening and hearing of poetry before the reading-though, working in tandem, in flux with the reading of lines arriving. Nor the power of nuance at that level of working. For reading but also for composing and how reading aloud is composing. Sometimes not. There are many who suggest that as Beethoven became deafer his music became stranger, raising the question: would Beethoven have composed the radical late string quartets if his whole compositional experience had been heard, and controlled more by the outer ear (which can be conservative, even insistent)? I have spoken of those elements of poetry happening in the ear and announcing: I am Poetry. I am this poem. For me, the heard poem, the vocalised poem, leads us to a different order of literary emotion and feeling than the read one. I want both.



Derrida, J and Ronell, A. 1980, The Law of Genre, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1, On Narrative (Autumn, 1980), The University of Chicago Press

Doidge, N. 2008, The Brain That Changes Itself, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Victoria