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The readers: In their craft or sullen art

Some poems are written to be read aloud, while some others are rendered somewhat lesser when ‘performed’. The distinction is mirrored among those who take in the works — the reader-turned-listener. Amitava Sanyal tells more.

columns Updated: Aug 25, 2010 18:29 IST
Amitava Sanyal

Some poems are written to be read aloud, while some others are rendered somewhat lesser when ‘performed’. The distinction is mirrored among those who take in the works — the reader-turned-listener. There are those who would rather go to a poem by themselves and make what they want of it; and then there are those who would rather be read to.

For reasons not entirely clear to me (I know it's not just about Kate Winslet in The Reader), I prefer to be among the latter lot.

It’s not just about remembering more of the poems that one has heard (it’s an old technique for memorising). Neither can it be just about the incantation of the author’s voice (which is often a numbing drone). What is it, then, that draws one to the poet’s voice? Maybe it’s the life that a performance inevitably imbues into a text — the surprises in its passion, the conviction in its interpretation.

Among the poets, too, there are two sets. Some cringe when asked to read from their works; while some others jump in at the hint of an invitation. Allen Ginsberg, who in 1948 had visions of William Blake while reading out from his works, refused to read his own works seven years later. He famously changed his mind, read out ‘Howl’ at a gallery, and went into this world of performances with the swagger of a rockstar. We start this selection of four with him.
amitava.sanyal@hindustantimes.com

For crying out loud
Allen Ginsberg takes his hatred of American ‘imperial excesses’ to an extreme in this video directed by Gus van Sant (whose latest work is Milk). Reading a version of his ‘Ballad of the Skeletons’ to Paul McCartney’s jingle-jangle score, Ginsberg takes the theatricality of the work to a level not associated even with poetry of revolution. Presidents, speakers, judges, Jesus — no one is spared a spanking.

What survived was love
Someone said it was difficult to discern the humour in Philip Larkin’s eyes, hidden as they were behind thick glasses. But his voice distilled all that he stood for. These readings, a collection dug up not long ago that includes readings from the poet’s first collection, The North Ship, vouch for that. They give a new ring to Larkin’s assertion that he was popular because of the happinesses he wrote about.

He did not go gentle
Dylan Thomas, a poet very sure that his works were better read aloud, thundered out his words. His Welsh accent mutated to a deliberateness that seemed to put down every word as a nail to hang vast canvases on. It was perhaps the same deliberation that made him rewrite his words over and over again. Listen to his tremolo on “... rage, rage against the dying of the light” and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The master’s darbaar
The formality of a mushaira (reading) can be daunting. But when the text in the middle — we’re back where we began, aren’t we? — sparkles, the distance between the poet and the listeners dissolves. In this mehfil (gathering), Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a rare artist who married the ghazal form to ideas of revolution, the poet is humble. But watch closely, and you may get a lovable picture of self-assurance too.