I recently read a fascinating article, An Algorithmic Investigation of the Highfalutin ‘Poet Voice,’, that delves deep into the affected oral monotony that can, I admit, make listening to poetry readings sometimes feel like a bit of a chore.
“Poet voice,” according to the researchers after analyzing the reading styles of 100 poets, is a composite of “slow pitch speed, slow pitch acceleration, narrow pitch range, low rhythmic complexity, and/or slow speaking rate.” Sound familiar? Most of us who love poetry have been there.
Why do poets do this? Though the question isn’t covered by the researchers, I have a hypothesis as to why. My theory is that poets, at least sometimes, use poet-voice in their free-verse delivery as a kind of unconscious compensation for the missing regularity of meter. Poet-voice creates a simulacrum of the stylized rhythmicality, rhetorical gravitas, and physical urgency that meter might have built into their poems.
Meter developed in poetry’s infancy, long before writing. It developed as a technique–a technology, one might even say–not only to make poems easier to remember, but also to make them easier to hear. Skillful metrical poetry is easy on the ears. In fact, like music, it addresses our right brains instead of our left brains, which makes listening to it sometimes a hypnotic, relaxing, altered-consciousness kind of experience–pleasurable rather than boring.
I found this observation of mine corroborated when I heard Michael Maglaras perform his six-hour reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. I was deeply skeptical when I walked in and saw the house was full. I had been to enough barely-attended one-hour poetry readings that I wondered how long everyone would last. But three hours later, as I wrote in my description for the Poetry Foundation, “the house was still full, with people knitting happily and kids sitting on the edge of their seats and everyone rapt with attention, riding the trochees onward with all their variations and subtleties . . .” If you’ve ever attended a free-verse poetry reading, could you possibly imagine that kind of attention after three hours of nonstop poetry by a single reader? And many in the audience stayed happily for the full six hours.
Metrical poetry can be varied wildly by both the poet (through the use of metrical variation and substitution) and by the performer. A passage in meter can be sped up, slowed down, varied in pitch and pause and tempo, and still remain metrical, as Longfellow and Maglaras demonstrated that night. But “poet-voice” is the opposite; as a performance style, it is by definition one-dimensional. If you vary poet-voice, you stop doing it, and all of its benefits of regularity and stylization are lost. It only exists insofar as it doesn’t vary. So poets who use it, generally, don’t vary it.
I am looking forward to getting in touch with the study’s main researcher, Marit J. MacArthur, some day, to find out how meter or lack of it figured into her research on poet voice.
What do you think of this idea? Have you noticed poet-voice at play? Do you hear a difference in poet-voice when a poet reads free verse as opposed to metered poetry?