The Quiet Part Loud

As far as I know Mark Antony Owen’s project iamb is one of a kind: an online journal which exclusively publishes poets reading their work. I was really glad to have three poems featured in the most recent edition. iamb was inspired by the Poetry Archive, but works like a magazine of new poetry. If I was the Poetry Archive (which is also a brilliant resource) I would be knocking on Mark’s door for help.

I think I have always had a funny relationship with the spoken word. I don’t, I tell myself, enjoy live readings: I’ve been writing poetry for over a decade and I can count the number I’ve been involved in on my fingers. The idea of an open mic, let alone a poetry ‘slam’, fills me with something like dread. Dread and, if I’m honest, a little distrust. There is a particular kind of poetry, written for performance, which has such a direct design on the listener that I’m suspicious of it. Perhaps too suspicious.

Poetry, after all, is impossible to detach from performance, on the page or off it. Perhaps what matters most is the environment in which the reading takes place. In poetry slams, which were popular when I was at university (I don’t know if they still are) the goal is to elicit the biggest immediate response. Hence pieces get written to manipulate the audience. But all art is a kind of manipulation. The question, surely is how provoke a reaction without treating your readers (or listeners) with contempt.

For me, reading poetry aloud rasies another occaisionally sensitive subject: memorability, whether it is increasingly rare in contemporary poetry (I think, on balance, it is), and whether that is something we should regret (I think we should). A common figure of fun for poets is the non-poetry reader who asks why the stuff doesn’t rhyme like the good old days. If only they knew better! Even mentioning rhyme is probably proof (so the exagerrated version of the argument goes) the person doesn’t understand what poetry’s about. We don’t have to worry about people like that.

But if you think of ‘rhyme’ as simply a word that stands, for the irregular reader, for every trick that makes a poem tick as a machine, then don’t they have a point? Memorability isn’t everything, and what I find memorable might not be what you find memorable. I don’t believe memorability is the same thing as form, either. Some of the most memorable poems break all the rules. All the same, I find it hard not to believe that a lack of interest in lodging lines into their readers heads from the very people who you might expect to care is one of the things that has contributed to poetry’s marginality over the years.

One of the most enjoyable part of the process with iamb was choosing the poems to include. Mark, very generously, gives you free reign. I found that invitation a powerful one. Suddenly the question wasn’t which were my ‘best’ poems – but which were the ones I most wanted to read. In doing so certain things came to the fore, none of which should really be a surprise – rhythm, rhyme and repetition (not just repetition within lines but across the poem).

I also took it as an opportunity to include an unpublished squib, ‘The Vandals Remove the Ark of the Covenant’, which (wrongly, perhaps) I hadn’t even thought of sending anywhere before, because it is a sort of so-called nonsense poem. Nonsense verse of course demands to be read aloud. A lot of my favourite poetry is nonsene verse – Edward Lear, Stevie Smith, Spike Milligan…

We live in a text-based world. When I read a book of poems it is usually in silence. But my interest in poetry has always had something to do with songs, with prayers, plays and children’s ryhmes. At some point those pleasures were sublimated almost entirely onto the page, but I don’t think, for me, the page makes much sense without them.


7 thoughts on “The Quiet Part Loud

  1. r.Douglas

    Interesting post. I’ve never been comfortable reading my stuff aloud. I’ve tried. Went so far as to embed a poem in a music mixed. Which sorta worked, but I’d never go public with it. It, the poem, was doggerel, so that helped. So hey…did you just make a mp3 or wave recording of your work and send it to the site? Did you, or the site sweeten the audio? Were you happy with the results? OK..sorry ’bout or the questions. This was a fine and thoughtful write. Stay well.

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  2. r.Douglas

    OK, I’m an idiot. I linked through and heard and enjoyed the three. The Ark a well conceived lark, but poetry in war time, was effortless, which means it took a hell of a lot of work. You sounded fine. The rookie audio producer snob in me says the audio could be a little wet(reverb), and compressed a bit. But in the main you were great, and site design is wonderful.

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    1. Jem Wikeley Post author

      Hi Douglas, thank you for the response, I really appreciate it. The editor puts an astonishing amount of work into the site, all in his own time. Readers record their poems and he does all the rest, and obviously he has to work with what we give him! I’m sure one reason more people and magazines don’t do audio versions, despite the opportunity the internet opens up for it, is the technical proficiency involved. I’m very glad you enjoyed the poems and especially Poetry in Wartime. I completely agree with Jonathan below, too – probably the best thing (and a good place to start) is reading other people’s poems.

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    2. Mark Antony Owen

      Hey r.Douglas!

      Glad you like the design of ‘iamb’ – I like to keep the visual elements simple, as it’s the words that should take centre stage.

      As to audio quality, I’m a rank amateur when it comes to audio production. Even so (and as the original author has said already), I can only work with what I’m sent.

      Sometimes – as you’ll hear on many poets’ pages on the ‘iamb’ site – the supplied recordings are close to ideal and require no tinkering. At other times, I have to do a lot of cleaning up … not always as successfully as I’d like!

      Mark Antony Owen
      Creator & Curator
      iambapoet.com

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      1. r.Douglas

        Very nice of you to take the time and explain your process at ‘iamb’- it’s a beautiful site. And technically, the presentation and audio is wonderfully imagined and skillfully executed. I’m sure it’s a lot of work. Good luck Mark , and I really hope the poets appreciate your effort.
        regards..and New Year stuff . r.Douglas

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  3. Jonathan Davidson

    Thank you for this very interesting piece, Jeremy. You’ll not be surprised to know that I agree with so much that you have said, especially ‘memorability’ (even just remembering the odd line, never mind a whole poem). ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’ [Pope, A, of course] is hardly ever mentioned as even just one measure of the quality of poetry, and perhaps that’s why so much poetry (my own included) is forgettable. And to respond to r.Douglas, having your poems read by others is not only a great test of their quality, but a real pleasure. Although performance and poetry are linked, it doesn’t have to be the poet’s performance always; cover versions are often better than the originals! Very best, Jonathan

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    1. Jem Wikeley Post author

      Thanks Jonathan. Completely agree about individual lines/phrases singing out (didn’t someone write ‘the hangers and arrival halls of hell’?). It’s too easy to assume ‘memorability’ means ‘written in like a ballad’! And yes to cover versions being often better than the originals… I think it’s all connected to that question of *where* poetry happens, how a poem circulates. I think poems actively want to be read, don’t they, but they need to be given the opportunity…

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