Monday, February 10, 2014

Reading Out Loud - A Diversion - 1

In the middle of his 1981 Expansive Poetics course (at the beginning of the June 25th class), Allen breaks off into a discourse about vocalization and the various skills required in reading the poem out loud. He goes into some detail. A transcription of his commentary follows here 

AG: Well last night at a party I was talking with Richard Poe, who is an apprentice, and I couldn't figure it out exactly what he wanted to apprentice to me about, what our relationship was, poetically. And, drunk, last night he said, "I figured it out finally. What I wanted, and was interested in, was learning how to read poetry aloud" - which I hadn't considered so much as a formal subject, but it turned me on - because that's what I've been doing in the class [here at Naropa]

So, to make that more conscious, my own training in reading aloud comes from being turned on by (Jack) Kerouac. Kerouac used to read (William) Shakespeare aloud, as well as his own writing, or (Francois) Rabelais, or any other text.

[Richard Poe enters]

You might get yourself a chair, Richard, if you can find one. Do you know where they are?..(so) that he can get to them...  They're over there...  We were just talking about you

Richard Poe: You were?

AG: Yes, you're the subject of the class now.  You know, what I was talking about (was) what we were talking about last night, learning how to read (out loud).

There are tapes of (Jack) Kerouac reading, in the library. Has anyone heard those? Some have. If you don't know that they're there.. How do you get them? You just ask George (Banks) (the librarian).

Student: Yeah

AG: Yeah - and they are on an index, a card index. Kerouac made three or four records in the late (19)50's and we transfered them onto tape. One is "Blues and Haikus" (with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, I think - two saxophonists - in which he pronounced his little haiku and they made a tiny saxophone haiku, a little rhythmic statement about the length of his haiku, with some of the tone of his haiku). He also has a tape of, I think, "Poetry For The Beat Generation" I think it was called, (in) which he reads a little bit of On The Road, and a little bit of Visions of Cody and some of his Mexico City Blues,

I remember him reading Shakespeare (which I've mentioned a number of times already). When he got to the line, "And I sit here like a scullion unpacking my woes like John-a-dreams" [editorial note - from Hamlet - "Yet I/A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak/Like John-a-dreams.."]  it was the way he pronounced "John-a-dreams", he acted out the word and made it sound like some kind of strange day-dreamy phraseology. And I began digging how much he appreciated the phrasing (like you appreciate a piece of musical phrasing, like,when you hear the saxophonist do some little dip in the melody and you say, "Ah", or "Go!", or whatever. So there was a way of phrasing that he had that looked int the vernacular idiomatic pronunciation, was conscious of that, and then exaggerated it a little bit, magnified it a bit, mouthed it on his tongue, appreciated the phrasing in his own mouth. So as I said (I think.. I don't know if it was in the class here, but as I said before), a little bit like cocksucking, in a sense. As in the (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, that there is that column of air, or there's that vowel.. there's the roundness of the vowel inside the mouth, which you can appreciate while forming it.

A further corollary is that with consonants, you become conscious of the consonants, which are formed mostly with the lips and the tip of the tongue and the teeth, and you exaggerate them slightly in order to make them definite and clear. And the reason for exaggerating them is if you’re talking in a classroom like this, with people rushing around and an air-conditioner or some wind, or if you’re like Bob Dylan in the midst of a twenty-seven-thousand-seat open-air auditorium and anything you say is going through a million volts of electricity through giant boxes, being exaggerated out into the air, in order for twenty-seven- or fifty-two- thousand ears to hear exactly what you’re saying, you really have to exaggerate the pronunciation just a little bit, so you can hear every “t” in “little” and every bit of the “t” in “bit” – “Bit” – every bit of the “t” in “bit”. So it gives your pronunciation, in certain respects, a slight Beatles-like British accent. If you’ll listen to (John) Lennon on records (or if you listen to (Bob) Dylan or Mick Jagger, the emphasis on “t”’s (and “p”s and “d”s) at the end of words is generally very conscious and strong, so that somebody listening to the record can hear what they’re saying – otherwise they get drowned out in all the rock’n roll (like I was. more or less, last night)). So there’s a certain theatricality to the pronunciation of consonants.

But then, aside from the theatricality, the very consciousness that you have of the bit of the word that you’re pronouncing puts intelligence into the pronunciation. In other words, mindfulness of breath in meditation practice, so mindfulness of the exactitude of the sounds that you are making, tends to open up an awareness during speech which your intelligence can fill up with intelligent sound. Or you can put your intelligence into the sound and pronounce the words with total intelligence, with complete consciousness that you’re pronouncing the word. Now you might be daydreaming and thinking of something else, but one way of getting back to the meaning of the word is through the pure sound of the word, to the fact that you’re actually pronouncing it, so it’s like getting back to the fact that while daydreaming you still have a word to pronounce. So, distracted as you might be by the crackling of Fritos, you still realize you have to say the word “pronounce”. And by getting back to the physical sound of “pronounce”, you put your mind and your body back into the actual understanding of the word that you’re saying, and you come from the Fritos and get to the pronunciation. It’s like in the process of meditation, as you daydream, in order to get back to the space where you are, you go back to your breathing, and through the breathing you realize you’re here. In other words, grasping onto a straw of the present – so you grasp onto a straw of the sound, and by pronouncing the words you then remember you’re saying something, and then you remember what it means, and then when you’re remembering what it means you might say it even more intelligently. The difference between that and the John Gielgud-esque British acting is in that the words are (assuming you’re reading your own poetry)’re trying to figure out what you meant when you wrote it, or what it might mean now, if you had to say it aloud to your mother, or somebody that you knew well. So you address your intelligence to somebody whose intelligence you respect and dig. And then you want them to dig your little twist of body and mind at that moment, and so you instantly go to, “What does the phrase mean in idiomatic vernacular ordinary mind if you were talking to someone?” – Like the opening line of “Howl” “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”. Now, every time I read that poem (which is relatively infrequent) I have to figure out who I’m talking to or how I’m going to say that line so that it won’t just be another wooden piece of symphony sound - “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed..” How can I get to say that that’ll make sense, that’ll sound fresh, that’ll sound like it means something? (because it doesn’t quite mean anything to me at the moment). Therefore I have to think of Libby [sic], someone to whom I could address that line so that it would make sense, or so that it would have a warning, or a humor, so that it would take on a humor or a color, or take on some significance. Then I could say, ““I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness – you better watch out!” – Something – In other words, you address it as a real speech to someone, a real functional speech, something that actually has to say something. And try to figure out (assuming that you’ve got a line that you can pronounce without being embarrassed, assuming you’ve got a line that does have some kind of straightforward sense to it, that isn’t just pure bullshit that there’s nobody in the world you can imagine saying it to that it would really mean anything (to), except somebody trying to get up and talk and sound good). Well, that means that you’ve got to begin with a line that makes some common-sense – you can’t just begin with complete bullshit – unless you want to do it as pure sound as an exhibition of complete bullshit, in which case, if you have an agreement with the reader or the listener, that you’re now going to give an exhibition of complete bullshit, then you have the pleasure of doing that, and so you can do what you want that way.
But, assuming that you’re talking to someone about something real, you have to first imagine it. I guess like an actor must. I don’t know how actors do it – but you have to first imagine it making sense, making real sense (shocking sense, maybe, or a turn-on sense) to someone, and then figure out how the cadence would go and where your voice would rise, if you were saying it to be understood by someone (as you were saying it to be understood by someone). If "I saw the best minds of my generation", for Libby, I would say like - "my" so I would have to emphasize "my" - "I saw the best minds of my generation" - and then maybe she thinks she's so smart - so "I saw the best minds of my generation" - so it depends (on) who you're talking to and how you want it to be taken.
Usually, if you're just reading someone's work, you have to improvise that as you go along, like walking a tightrope. Instantly, line-by-line, figuring what does the text mean? (your own text, or somebody else's text).

First of all, you can slow down and mouth the vowels. You can put your intelligence to sharpen up the pronunciation of the consonants (which also gives an extra little head-shake of intelligence in the sentence). You're addressing it as actual speech to someone, speech which has a function and which therefore will have a color of different tones of voice in the vowel, and the problem of tone, or the question of tone, is something that musicians know, but it's ancient practice. (Ezra) Pound points out the tone in a little slogan in his preface to Basil Bunting's edition of Selected Poems, 1950, published by Dallam Flynn in Texas. He says, "Follow the tone-leading of the vowels". Follow where the vowels' tones lead, where one tone goes into another tone, vowel to vowel - for musicality, he meant. To understand the music, to appreciate, or to speak, or to hear, the musicality of a line, follow the tone-leading of the vowels. Meaning that the tone or pitch of the voice goes high or low, or middle, depending on the amount of air expelled from the lungs. When there's a great deal of air expelled from the lungs and there's a lot of stress, generally, it goes higher. Stress means more air coming out of the lungs onto the syllable. Generally, I think that's the physiological explanation.More air, more hot air, so to speak, more air, more force. So when there's a force,  or stronger air, generally, the pitch goes up. When there's softer, lower, less air, the pitch goes down. Words you emphasize generally go up. 

[Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at approximately two-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately eighteen minutes in] 

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