Last week, posting Derek Walcott’s The Schooner Flight on our blog, I linked to an audio of him reading aloud. Hearing a poet’s voice – the tone, the pace, the intonation, the inflection – can enrich appreciation of their work. At other times it’s disastrous. Each year the Today Programme on Radio 4 invites finalists for the T S Eliot poetry prize to recite from their collections. A surprising number are unconvincing. Being a great writer does not make someone a great reader.
This week at Tricycle Readers we analysed Charles Causley’s beautiful poem, Eden Rock. Before printing up, I listened to the poet reading the poem, and then an audio of a performer called Tom O’Bedlam doing the same. O’Bedlam’s reading opened more windows onto the text, even though he gets a word wrong. Online research revealed he has a YouTube channel of readings from the classics. It’s had nearly two million hits. There is clearly something in his style that underscores meaning.
The name O’Bedlam is taken from – according to Wikipedia – an anonymously written ‘mad song’ of the early 17th Century. How extraordinary that a stranger with a preacher’s tone has recorded thousands of poems and snatches of literature for our pleasure. His archive is worth a visit.
Most writers will read their work aloud to themselves if not to others. It’s easier to spot problems – misspellings and missing words, too much content, too little context, uneven dialogue, over-egged detail, slips and repeats – when your tongue trips over them. Even established writers join writers’ groups where they can discuss the pitfalls and pratfalls with others whose judgement they trust.
I’m a competent but not always confident reader, and the joy of our group is that once the reading is over, we pick over the text individually and together. Eden Rock was suggested by one of our number who burst out laughing half way through the discussion that followed. She said her way of seeing and interpreting work was always challenged by people bringing quite different perceptions to the table: the comfort she got from Causley’s poem gave others a sense of foreboding.
If you get a chance, do read it. To hear the audio, use the link on our Group Texts page. In the meantime, here’s a stanza from the mad song featuring Tom O’Bedlam. It’s terrific.
When I short have shorn my sow’s face
And swigged my horny barrel,
In an oaken inn I pound my skin
As a suit of gilt apparel;
The moon’s my constant mistress,
And the lowly owl my marrow;
The flaming drake and the night crow make
Me music to my sorrow.
While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.
You can read the whole text here.