The Music of Poets Reading

I very much enjoyed the reading the other night at the 92nd Street Y in New York, given by my friend and collaborator Susan Stewart and by Mark Strand. Both are marvelous and wise poets, and they shared good, new, strong stuff.

I could tell you more about their work, but for this (mostly) music blog, let me comment that after the reading, I started mentally comparing the event with a new music concert. Neither type of gathering attracts a huge crowd, and there often seem to be a fair number of insiders in the audience. Compared with a concert, a reading is more informal in certain ways – poets (at least last night) don’t take bows. Could musicians learn something from the way the readings last night were made of numerous short pieces rather than a few lengthy ones? or from the way the evening was leavened with a good bit of humor?

The way a poet reads is a curious balance of artless and artful. Poets are not actors, they don’t use their voices’s full range of intonation and inflection. Yet poetry is generally not read in an everyday voice – there is that curious chant-like way poets have of intoning their texts. There were a few moments at last night’s reading when I lost my way in the meaning of the words (my fault, not theirs) and gave myself over to the sound of the poet’s voice, to the contour of the not quite pitched intonation, to the lengths of the phrases and sentences, to the rhythm, to accent, grouping, duration, to the tone and timbre at once intimate and public – to the music of poets reading.

Susan Stewart at the Y

Poet Susan Stewart, my collaborator on Songs for Adam (see David Patrick Stearns on the piece in the column at right) will be reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Monday, January 30. She shares the bill with Mark Strand. In addition to Adam, I’ve used texts by Susan in Holy the Firm and Dark the Star, two pieces that will be on the 21st Century Consort cd that is in the editing stage. The disc features Susan Narucki, soprano, and Bill Sharp, baritone. Susan has written another set of texts for me, this time having to do with a Sibyl – I hope to get to work on that setting soon.