Poetry: To read or to hear?

For a moment, let us set aside Spoken Word, as it is, by its very nature, meant to be performed, read aloud, absorbed by your ears. It does make use of hip-hop rhythms, intricate patterns of rhyme and syntax. However, as its focus is primarily on performance, we will not consider it for this discussion.

Poetry. Prosody. Free verse or formed structure. First laid down on paper, arranged by line and stanza. There it sits, to be read and viewed and taken for its overall aspect. You can see end rhymes as easily as you can hear metrics. Some would say that it is not alive until it is vocalized, placed into the ether for those willing ears to encounter.

Then there is the poet who has mastered his voice and sense of projection, who knows the nuances of highlighting the words which will create the most emotional impact. Regardless of the form or structure or word choice, this is a piece of work that captivates. Or does it?

I have spent several nights over the last year going to poetry readings in Wichita and talking at length with writers who are looking to capture something essential of Human Nature in their work. They are to be commended for their efforts. In doing this, I have had to take a two-sided look at the nature of poetry. In sitting quietly and listening to a person recite their work, I seek out tonal qualities, in essence, the musicality of the piece. Separated from the paper, there is no sense of metrics other than what the writer reads into it. This makes the piece’s success completely dependent upon the vocal recitation.

Additionally, I have had the opportunity to view the written work and found that, in some cases, the lines are too long (akin to a modern-day Walt Whitman) yet with no intent toward metric consideration or syllabic count. They are lines placed as written. Perhaps there are good word choices, turns of phrase, sensationalized allusions. Every once in a while, there is a poem that looks like…well, a poem.

There is no intention at being dismissive. The world of writing and literature has changed and is allowed to change. But I still believe that poetry to be a metrically conscientious effort in which words dance separately from the images they are trying to evoke. We should be able to hear the poet’s voice in the silence of our own minds as we read. If a poem works only because it is being read in an ideal fashion, it is not, to me, a complete success.

So, as I continue to venture forth to these events, I enjoy what I am hearing. In the end, I want to be able to enjoy reading it as well.


  1. nancyhsturm said,

    February 16, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    I think my favorite poetry has both deep meaning and is rich in sound effects. Enjoyed the article!


    • H.B. Berlow said,

      February 16, 2014 at 9:55 pm

      It needs both. I get disappointed when I hear a piece sacrificing one thing for the other. But, they’re young and they’ll learn.


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