I had a lot to say about this so decided to make it its own post instead of a response. I love hearing poets read their own work, as you can get so much more of their personality that you may have missed while reading it on your own. My tenth grade English teacher had a really great poetry unit for us, where we did things like listening to different types of music while writing and seeing how the tone of the music influenced the tone of our work, and reading a poem in our heads, and then hearing them read by the poet. For the second exercise, she chose the poem Litany, by Billy Collins. When I first read it, it didn’t stand out too much, but when I heard the poet read it I was able to catch all the subtle dry humor in the piece. (The audience’s reactions helped with that too, which brings up an entirely different thought that maybe it’s less of the poet reading as much as it’s the audience’s laughter or snaps or ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’ much in the way that the cast of a show will be more energetic if the audience is more engaged.)
The poem itself is also constructed in a cool way, written by taking the first two lines of a different poet’s work, which is a fun exercise on a rainy day.
So here’s the poem:
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine…
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.
Here’s a video of Collins reading this poem to a very engaged audience (he also explains more about how he wrote the poem:
With all of this in mind, I have one last thought. In a Poet’s Society meeting a member of the club said he thought poetry was mostly about performance, and less about the actual text. As someone who mostly writes contemporary poetry and pays a lot of attention to line breaks and how white space is used on the page, I was completely against this. With slam poetry, I always prefer reading the poems on the page rather than hearing them read aloud by the poet. I think that for me, personally, this is because in slam you put a lot of emphasis in certain places and I always found the most meaning in the parts that are usually ghosted over when said out loud, whereas in contemporary poetry readings you are more able to hear and mull over every word that is said.
I was wondering if people agree or disagree about all poetry being mostly about performance, and what all of your thoughts are on hearing a poet read their poem aloud vs reading their poem on paper.