Last week, my friend Andrew said to me, “I like attending your readings, but your poetry really comes alive on the page.”
I asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends which they prefer, and it seems Andrew is very much in a minority position. I’m speculating here, but perhaps he prefers it on the page because he’s an English major. We English majors spend four or more years at university learning how to read differently than lay readers. He may want to spend more time with each poem, deriving its meaning, analyzing my use of rhetorical devices, and so on.
As for my opinion on the topic, it depends on the poet. I attended a Billy Collins reading at the University of Tulsa a couple years ago, and, though I was already a fan, hearing him read added something extra. His cadence and tone highlighted certain images, made his frequent jokes funnier, and helped me feel connected to the poems.
Some poets are awful readers of their work, though. I found a CD at Barnes & Noble featuring 20th century American poets reading selected works. The worst reader on the disc is Robert Frost. I don’t think many would deny that Frost is among the literary greats, but his drab, rushed presentation of “The Road Less Travelled” disappoints. While I was still trying to decide which road to take, he was already finished. I didn’t feel the emotional pull that I get when I read it myself.
Then there are poems that don’t make sense when read aloud. E.E. Cummings has several like this, poems in which the form serves a necessary function. Example:
So what’s your preference? Do you like poems on the page or read aloud?
For those who prefer the audio/visual experience, here is Billy Collins reading three poems at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival.