Years ago, I had a dream in which I was giving a poetry reading at my old middle school, and Ted Hughes was in the audience. He was a kind of shade, or revenant, come back from the dead – like a ghost out of Homer. The reading I was giving was fairly conventional. I’d introduce the poem, then read it – and some of the intros strayed into the territory of telling the listener what to think, or how to interpret the poem. Each time I did this, Ted would glower from the front – glower, or shuffle in his seat.
When I’d finished he got up and tried to speak with me, but because he was dead, he had no voice. Instead, he had to communicate with me through dance and physical expression alone. This was often inelegant, or awkward, but it was also full of strange presence and was a kind of poem in itself – a poem of the body.
The question I took away from this was simple: should poems be allowed to enact themselves, to go through their own motions, unshackled from supporting discourse?
Maybe. Needless to say, I find it very hard to trust in this. There is so much compressed into a poem, and it is asking a lot of someone if we expect them to absorb it in one listen. When a poem becomes an aural experience, the audience cannot return to any passages for that second or third exposure that finally resonates in the imagination. So, I try to set each poem up with a workable frame, or a key to its theme, process or technique. It will be a little haiku in itself.
Someone once asked me at a reading: ‘Do you think that’s a good idea? Aren’t you afraid of influencing the audience’s interpretation too much?’ I answered as honestly as I could: ‘I think it can be bad if you do, and I think it can be bad if you don’t…’ Say too much, and you might bulldoze your own poem, or bore your listener. Say too little, and they might wonder why the hell you’re there at all.
The ultimate objective for me is to pave the way for the listener to have some kind of experience, and for that experience to be unique and memorable on some level – even while conceding that the experience cannot be a complete or definitive ‘reading’ of the poem. I want to open doors to interpretation, but not lock listeners inside whatever rooms those doors lead to.
So what will I consider when selecting poems to read to an audience? Firstly, I do want to give them some insight into the existential link between my writing and my life as a human being in the world. I want to throw some light on where my investment comes from, and why it means something to me. I try to choose poems that project this as a quality of tone and voice. I hope this creates a mood of intimacy, where key ideas can unfold and resonate.
I try to choose some material that yields some immediate pleasure as sound and rhythm alone, even if ‘meaning’ is less forthcoming. I like my sets to have shape and structure – to offer some kind of journey, or thematic development, and I try to modulate tone, mood and intensity so as to avoid monotony, and facilitate surprise. The first and last poem are important, offering points of departure and arrival. If I’m in any doubt about the venue, or the audience’s interest, I’ll keep it short. The worst thing a poet can do is overstay their welcome.
One of the most memorable readings I’ve heard was delivered by Andrew Hirst, in the late 1990s. He didn’t introduce his poems. He uttered them sat down at a table, as if he was addressing someone inside the work. ‘Is that you, father?’ were the first words he spoke. My spine shivered awake. I forgot my social awkwardness, and found myself listening as if along my nerves.
Hirst wasn’t performing, or mechanically reading in the manufactured poetry voice. He was breathing, or talking the poems – letting voice and tone work its magic on the listener’s body and mind. When he’d finished, I didn’t want to speak, or blab my way into a critique. I didn’t want to break the mood.
I’ve only felt like that a handful of times over the years – and if I could offer a listener just a taste of that feeling, I’d consider it a job well done. It’s all about using voice and tone to let the poems enact the pulse of their own strange presence. For me, it’s got to feel like a living, unfolding presence, not a clockwork construct. If the poems have any pulse at all, this will be more interesting and affecting than anything I can say about them.
Matthew Clegg is a member of The Ted Hughes Project. His second full-length collection, The Navigators, is available now from Longbarrow Press; click here for extracts, essays and audio recordings.