The two most chilling words a reader can hear: “poetry reading.” The ham on stage, his audience of sycophants. The ham droning or orating, head bowed in faux-modesty. He is so sensitive, so – visionary? Few read well and fewer write well. The poet substitutes himself for his words, which, come to think of it, may be an act of mercy. I’d rather be at home, reading poems on the page and cutting out the middleman. No tedium, no wishing I’d worn a watch.
In 2011, the late Helen Pinkerton sent me Yvor Winters Reading Poetry, the CD she and Wesley Trimpi produced for the Yvor Winters Centenary Symposium at Stanford University in 2000. Winters made the recordings in 1953 and 1958. He reads thirty-one of his own poems and others by Fulke Greville, Ben Jonson, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and J.V. Cunningham – in short, the Winters Canon. To listen to the recording is to hear a grownup. Winters maintains a strong mid-tempo pace. His words are neither rushed nor labored. The enunciation is flawless. No cheap effects, over-emoting, goofy sounds, pandering to listeners. Winters sounds like a husband, father and thinker, worthy of trust. He is the messenger, not the message. Helen writes in her liner-notes: “As if in a musical performance, he riveted attention on the poem itself in its full, living reality – its audible being.” After listening again to the CD, I reread Winters’ essay “The Audible Reading of Poetry” (The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises, 1957), and was impressed by the amount of space he devotes to prose:
“It is also important to learn to read prose aloud, and to hear the prose when one reads it silently. Melville, Gibbon, or Samuel Johnson about equally will be lost on us if we do not so hear it.”
Winters suggests we listen with both the “sensual ear” and the “mind’s ear.” Readers who don’t are “barbarians; literature is closed to them, in spite of the fact that they may think otherwise.” Winters’ examples of prose writers worth listening to are perfectly chosen. Here is the opening paragraph of the first sketch in Melville’s “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles.” Read it aloud. Hear the conversational, story-telling tone and the predominantly iambic beat:
“Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration.”
As to Gibbon, he is difficult to quote briefly. Read aloud this excerpt from Vol. IV, Chap. 25 of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and enjoy the unlikely mingling of sonority and hilarity:
“A philosopher may deplore the eternal discord of the human race, but he will confess that the desire of spoil is a more rational provocation than the vanity of conquest. From the age of Constantine to that of the Plantagenets, this rapacious spirit continued to instigate the poor and hardy Caledonians: but the same people, whose generous humanity seems to inspire the songs of Ossian, was disgraced by a savage ignorance of the virtues of peace and of the laws of war. Their southern neighbours have felt, and perhaps exaggerated, the cruel depredations of the Scots and Picts: and a valiant tribe of Caledonia, the Attacotti, the enemies, and afterwards the soldiers, of Valentinian, are accused, by an eye-witness, of delighting in the taste of human flesh. When they hunted the woods for prey, it is said that they attacked the shepherd rather than his flock; and that they curiously selected the most delicate and brawny parts, both of males and females, which they prepared for their horrid repasts. If, in the neighbourhood of the commercial and literary town of Glasgow, a race of cannibals has really existed, we may contemplate, in the period of the Scottish history, the opposite extremes of savage and civilized life. Such reflections tend to enlarge the circle of our ideas: and to encourage the pleasing hope that New Zealand may produce, in some future age, the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere.”
Finally, Dr. Johnson in The Rambler #2:
“He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance. Some are too indolent to read any thing, till its reputation is established; others too envious to promote that fame which gives them pain by its increase. What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed. The learned are afraid to declare their opinion early, lest they should put their reputation in hazard; the ignorant always imagine themselves giving some proof of delicacy, when they refuse to be pleased: and he that finds his way to reputation through all these obstructions, must acknowledge that he is indebted to other causes besides his industry, his learning, or his wit.”
At its best (in the periodical essays and Lives of the English Poets), Johnson’s prose is a pounding sea. We stand on the shore, wondering at its power, hoping not to be swept away. Just listen to the roar.