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The Sing-Song Rhythm of Poet Speak

Jeremy Richards

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Nikki Giovanni
(Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)
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Christa Bell: 'If you don't come'
(nohans)

The BBC captured the voice of the great Irish bard William Butler Yeats in 1932. At the time, even those who loved Yeats' poetry would sometimes ask why he didn't take a more natural approach to reciting his poems. But Yeats was insistent: "I will not read them as if they were prose," he said.

As a result, Yeats sometimes took a drubbing from critics for his other-worldly reading style. Of course, this is something you have to hear for yourself, but I'll give you an idea. When Yeats read, each syllable of his work marched forth with a measured emphasis on the rhythm:

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings.

To the untrained ear, all poets may sound the same, but poets have voiced a wide range of styles for centuries. Yeats exemplifies what we'll call the "sing-song" voice. Anecdotal theories trace it to influential European poets with accented English, and some think the voice took on new dimensions during the drug-induced stupors of the beatnik era. And then there's the jazz remix of the poet voice, popular in the spoken word world.

Laughing, poet and performer Christa Bell demonstrates the jazz poet voice:

"And then the moon SHINED ...
and it SHONE and SHONE and SHONE until ...
the sun came out, and then, boo BAH dah do DAHHH ..."

"That," says Christa Bell, "is what we make fun of in the spoken-word world."

Bell comes from a tradition of African diaspora, often informed by jazz, blues and hip-hop. She thinks that past generations were just infusing musicality in their delivery. For generations since, it became like a family habit you pick up without knowing why.

"I would say it's from people copying people who are copying people," Bell says. "A lot of the old-school poets, particularly from the African-American tradition -- from Etheridge Knight and Amiri Baraka to Nikki Giovanni and the Last Poets -- had a style. Part of the style was talking like THIS and like THIS and like THIS, right?"

Rhythm is important to all poets. But if you dig around for old recordings, you'll notice how the jazz and blues poets replace Yeats' measured sing-song with flashes of syncopation. Christa Bell picks up there, but adds the sort of cadence she grew up hearing as the daughter of a Pentecostal minister:

This poem's your whirling dervish,
a full moon offering to the goddess,
it's Martha and Mary weeping at the foot of the cross.
This poem's spoken in hieroglyphics, it's written in tongues, woman, if you don't come, don't nobody come...

Yet while poets like Christa Bell are creating a new style, there's one aspect of the poet voice that still crops up with many performers: The upward inflection. Four-time National Poetry Slam Champion Taylor Mali skewers this and other performance cliches in a live recording:

"Ending every line going up?" (laughter)

Mali's been studying and mocking the way poets perform for almost 20 years.

"By turning declarative sentences into questions, they are in essence inviting the audience to answer these rhetorical questions with 'Yes, go on... Yes, go on,'" Mali says.

Poets in the slam community like Mali have done their best to lose the upward inflection. But Mali says in academic circles and at readings on college campuses, the inflection is still alive and well. In fact. it's almost taken for granted.

"I think if you asked what for lack of a better term I need to call "normal" poets -- regular poets, poets laureate -- if you were to ask somebody like Robert Pinsky why poets read the way they do, Robert Pinsky would probably say that he's merely trying to read in sort of a neutral tone," Mali says.

Actually, I spoke with Pinsky, and he makes fun of academic poets just like Mali does. "Do you mean when people read it a spaced... out... way?" he asked me. Pinsky, by the way, is the former U.S. Poet Laureate. And yeah, he's one of the first in line to mock the poet voice, in all its forms. "Or when it's bad ham acting and when people read in a... spaced... out... way!"

Robert Pinsky's known for being an advocate for making poetry more open to everyone. In 1997, Pinsky took the post of Poet Laureate and introduced the Favorite Poem Project. He invited everyday Americans to share their poetry picks, to showcase a wide range of voices -- from Hillary Clinton reciting Howard Nemerov to Jamaican-born photographer Seph Rodney invoking Sylvia Plath.

According to Robert Pinsky, this diversity, this natural expression of voice, is where a poem comes to life:

"I believe that it is a vocal art," Pinsky says. "It's true that poetry isn't speech. It's not song either. It's somewhere on a line between speech and song -- that it's a special kind of discourse, that it's speech plus something."

When Pinsky recites his own poetry, he keeps at least one criterion in mind: "I hope I don't bore audiences. You know, you don't wanna make this -- it's not school, it's not church, it's art. It's supposed to be a pleasure."

If you go to a poetry reading, you're bound to hear a few odd inflections. But the "poet voice" of yore is dying out, giving way to a more natural sound. So embrace the new poet voice the way you embrace the public radio voice -- that soothing consistency of a refrigerator hum, always there, constant and knowing. That public radio voice you know will always glide along, and then slow down -- just so, right as a story... is about to end.

  • Music Bridge:
    Transmission Received
    Artist: Algernon
    CD: Familiar Espionage (ears and eyes)

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    By abha iyengar

    04/17/2008

    This has given me an insight into the common mistakes one makes while doing the 'spoken word'.

    By John Dooley

    From Portland, OR, 04/12/2008

    Try Hydropods, for a different take on spoken word without the 'poet voice'. www.myspace.com/hydropods

    By laura kett

    From ann arbor, MI, 04/12/2008

    This method of delivery is also common with preachers: preacherese. Sometimes when I hear a delivery with all of those pauses...some pointless pauses...my mind starts wandering and I wonder how they talk in their houses or converse with their friends: "now(tone goes up)...I will wash (tone up)...the DISHES (emphasis for no reason)
    Or you could do the same thing with: "I think...I am going...to K-Mart." "Why?!.....What...do you need!"

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