Poet Voice and Why it Grates
Picture, if you will, that you are not overly familiar with live poetry reading, and gave it a chance just to try it. But the speaker, using a monotone and slightly halting delivery, was as imposing as the meaning of the words themselves. Turns out that is common and the subject of some research, as Cara Giamimo writes in Atlas Obscura:
By comparing Poets and Talkers along these lines, the researchers were able to draw two overall conclusions. First, when compared to the Talkers, the poets tended to speak more slowly and stay within a narrower pitch range. Second, very few Talkers indulged in long pauses, but plenty of poets—33 percent—had no trouble leaving their listeners hanging for two seconds or more.
And what about Poet Voice more specifically? MacArthur’s own list of notable culprits includes Michael Ryan and Juliana Spahr, as well as the aforementioned Glück and Trethewey. When the researchers compared these poets’ vocal stats with each other, a set of common attributes emerged. “The pitch range tends to be narrower, but that by itself is not enough,” says MacArthur. “It’s also what you’re doing with your voice within a given pitch range.” Devotees of Poet Voice tend to exhibit slow pitch speed and pitch acceleration: in other words, though the pitch may go up and down over the course of the reading, it’s more rolling hills than rollercoaster. “You could think about it almost as the same melody over and over,” says MacArthur. This contrasts with the more conversational or expressive styles of reading exemplified by, say, Amalia Ortiz or Rae Armantrout.
This is also, perhaps, why it can seem grating or detached: “In a more natural conversational intonation pattern, you vary your pitch for emphasis depending on how you feel about something,” says MacArthur. “In this style of poetry reading, those idiosyncrasies … get subordinated to this repetitive cadence. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, you just say it in the same way.” Overall, the researchers write, “from this small sample, we would conclude that perhaps when some listeners hear poets read with one or more of these characteristics—slow pitch speed, slow pitch acceleration, narrow pitch range, low rhythmic complexity, and/or slow speaking rate—they hear Poet Voice.”
According to this analysis, the poet Amiri Baraka favors a more conversational reading style. It’s easy to make fun of Poet Voice. But its proliferation across the space of academic poetry may have more serious implications as well. In a 2014 essay, “Poet Voice and Flock Mentality,” the poet Lisa Marie Basile connects it to an overall lack of diversity in the field, and a fear of breaking the mold. The consistent use of it, she writes, “delivers two messages: I am educated, I am taught, I am part-of a group … I am afraid to tell my own story in my own voice.”
The whole piece is interesting and worth your time to read, in the meantime us philistines will just concur with the conclusion:
“These tools help us figure out, what is it that we’re responding to?” she says. “I think there’s a lot of potential for testing our perceptions of speech that we find entertaining, or boring, or engaging, in ways that are very hard to put a finger on.” If nothing else, it’s something to think about around stanza number four, when you start nodding off.
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