The lost art of recitation
Like music, reading poetry closes the space between languages and ways of reading
A recent experience of listening to poetry recited from memory took my mind to a cold winter evening many years ago when A.G. Stock, professor of Irish poetry, was brought in a wheelchair into the hall where we were eagerly waiting. A scholar of Yeats, who had spent most of her life in India away from her home in Ireland, Professor Stock declared she was stone deaf, and if anyone in the audience who had difficulty hearing her would put up their hand, she would increase the decibels. She then pulled out a cigarette and lectured on the Auden Generation for over two hours, reciting poetry from memory with not a written page before her. Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, Yeats and Auden, all virtually came alive during the recitation.
Sitting there I could only think of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, who on receiving the honoris causa at Oxford aroused consternation when, in her acceptance speech, she challenged the audience to recite a poem from memory. The point she was making was that poetry recitation, still an abiding tradition in Russia, had died in England. Her observation, in her own words, “landed with a stony thud”; it is still talked about in academic circles in Oxford.
To consider Akhmatova and Stock speaking and reciting was to consider a force of nature, a true love of poetry welling up from deep within one’s being, a voice wild and simple and untranslatable. I recall Akhmatova’s lines: “If you were music, I would listen to you ceaselessly, and my low spirits would brighten up.”
I have always been taken in by the energy of their imagination, every line a revengeful burst of resurrection and the lover’s ferocious passion: ‘You will hear thunder and remember me, and think: she wanted storms….’ One such example I came across recently, at once radiant and unearthly, is the poetry recitation of a Tamil poet, Arundhathi Subramaniam. The three poets I talk of here easily transform into figures of passionate vigour that one associates with the poetry of war and nationalism, of love and fierce desire. In their words, they leave traces of themselves gloriously, and yet to them words confine language to a page, a falsification of spontaneity and poetic human utterance. Perhaps no language is “honest enough” except the one you speak in, as Subramaniam writes in her recent poem ‘Where the Script Ends’.
To hear them was a delight. The value of hearing poetry being read out loud is an experience that can humanise what so often seems abstracted and debased on the page. Their bodily presence seems to elementalise their recitation. It was not simply a matter of the voice and its deep resonance and lilting caress that I particularly noticed in Subramaniam, it was the rest: the complicated machinery of the body, the face and the posture, of sitting or standing before an audience when even the slight or expansive gesture of the hand matters in conveying the sense of a line or a thought. She talked between the poems with a crisp eloquence, meeting the eyes of the audience off and on, standing very still, braced against a world that has lost the art of even listening. She spoke with slow, easy confidence, neither faltering nor wavering, giving poetry a sense of strength, effortlessness and assurance.
Such recitation could only draw the listeners to the book itself with a new sense of exhilaration and encounter, which is lost in the dry pedagogy of critical practice. Recitation indeed locks the poet, with such energy emanating from the poem that it is at once transferred to the audience who then begin to wonder how they could go to the written word before listening to the oral. For a moment, like music, recitation closes the space between different languages and ways of reading, letting the listener absorb whatever meaning rings true.
I remember the way we were taught recitation at school, although this training was soon lost through meaningless exercises of reference to the context and paraphrasing. Poetry was never meant to be read, inasmuch as drama was not supposed to be taught in a classroom. Shakespeare must be turning in his grave seeing the institutionalising of such art forms. To Akhmatova it was ‘as the future ripens in the past, /so the past rots in the future —/a terrible festival of dead leaves’.
Shelley Walia is professor and fellow, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.