Writing Poetry Aloud

Sean Thomas Dougherty and I started a Facebook poll. We are asking our poet friends the following question: During the composition of a poem do you read the poem out loud?

Sean and I want to know because it seems there are a lot of “ear dead” poems out there. While we wait for responses, I am thinking about how I read the poem aloud during its composition.

I can tell you right now that I don’t read my poems out loud during composition that often, but I tend to read the poem aloud once during the composition. But why don’t I read  aloud more often during the poem’s composition? Why only once if at all? especially when I love reading them out loud at poetry readings, especially when I love the rhythm my body falls into and the trance I fall into when I read the poems aloud.

Charles Olson

Charles Olson. Creator of Projective Verse.

I used to read out loud a lot more often, especially during my Charles Olson and Projective Verse phase, which lasted about three or five years. I had to get the poem’s layout with all the spaces between the words to match my breathing, which is more fun when you try to match it to how you smoke!

I should go back further.

I have written in almost every form and every quantitative and qualitative meter that I could find in English, Latin, and Greek. And I have written at least three poems for every meter or form. The only way to write in every meter is to read aloud.

Algernon Charles Swinburne

"Algernon Charles Swinburne" painting by George Frederic Watts 1867.

Swinburne taught me the most about qualitative meter, and it was Ezra Pound, I think, and a Latin dictionary that taught me the most about quantitative meter. By the way, qualitative meters are based on syllabic stress while quantitative meters are based on syllabic length.

Back in the early 90s I heard of a guy who would talk in complete sonnets. He just made them up on the spot in mid-conversation and as part of the conversation. I wanted to do that. So I began another level of training. After a while, I was able to talk in rhyming iambic pentameter fairly well and in blank iambic pentameter with hardly any effort. I never did reach the sonnet level. Maybe once.

I also learned to read slow so I could hear each sound, how it moved, and how it connected to other sounds. Did you know that each letter of the alphabet is made of multiple sounds? That’s useful in harmony making. Did you know there are five levels of stress? They only teach you two in school: stressed and unstressed. But there are five. I even created my own five-level scansion symbol system to mark all the syllables.

Did you know that it’s impossible for the first syllable of a poem to be unstressed? It’s not necessarily stressed, but it’s not completely unstressed. This is because you are speaking for the first time. There’s an extra build up of air. More air comes out here than it would in another spot. For example:

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.

That’s from Robert Frost’s “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things.” That first “the” has more of an accent than the “the” in the second line. It’s because of the initial expulsion of air.

Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan

Also, in every poem there is one syllable that is more stressed than any other syllable. That’s what Robert Duncan said. I’ve confirmed it true, usually. Sometimes there are two syllables that are the strongest.

So how do I accurately explain how much I read out loud? I don’t know, but I did. Every poem I read, I read out loud. In fact, there came a point when I thought you could derive a poem’s meanings strictly from its sounds. You can. Not always, but often. In fact, there came a point when I didn’t care about the content in any poem. I just wanted sounds. Long vowel sounds especially. Like Bob Dylan’s vowels or Campion’s. Eventually I learned that in a poem the vowels carry the emotion and the consonants carry the meaning. That’s what the letters do. Go read a poem. The emotional ones have lots of long vowels or good vowel movements. The heady poems are consonant based.

T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

Almost all my papers on poems were about sound, meter, and rhythm. What I’m trying to say is that I spent an intense twelve to fourteen years reading every poem aloud multiple times and in different intonations. The beginning of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets may be the most beautiful sounding poetry in the history of the English language.

Plus, I scanned poems. I wrote down the stresses and unstresses using my five-level scansion symbol system. I wanted to see what I was hearing. By seeing what I was hearing, by recording it, I was better able to train my ear.

Now, I don’t read out loud that much. Now, when I read out loud, I read for pitch and tone. Because of all my self-imposed training, my mental/silent ear can pick up on the vowel movements and harmonies and rhythms quite well, at this point. It’s actually like a visual and internal-audio dialogue as to how I hear most of the poem. But it’s not so good at hearing the height of the sound, or at least in hearing how the heights work throughout the poem, and how those heights affect the poem’s tone. The poems I don’t read out loud while composing are the ones that are generally flat in language and imagination and end up being to thinky or cerebral. Plus, I want to hear the puffs from my lungs. At some point in the composition, I want my lungs involved. Also, if I’m trying to work out sounds in the poem, I will read it aloud a number of times.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Thinking of pitch and tone. If you want to learn about pitch, read Allen Ginsberg. If you want to learn about tone read Ezra Pound or Christopher Howell.

Now, I wanna write a long Ginsbergian poem because those are the most fun to read aloud.


Everything I wrote above is true. At the same time I’m being defensive. I’m rationalizing my laziness for not reading aloud my poems during their compositions.

Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer

A poem needs energy to exist. The hardest part about revising a poem is keeping the original energies. The more revisions that occur, the less of the original energies that remain. That’s generally true. That’s why I think Allen Ginsberg “revised lightly.” That’s probably why Robert Creeley didn’t revise. That’s probably why Jack Spicer trusted the Martians who gave him his poems.

And a poem can’t have energies if it’s written flatly on the page. It can only have two dimensions that way. Writing with the voice creates additional energies and dimensions. The vowel aloud has more emotion that what I hear in my head.

A poem written on the page is a zombie.

It needs breath to be alive. Charles Olson knew that, and now I am reminded of that.

It’s time to stop being lazy. It’s time to sing aloud.//

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