This is essentially a plea for listening as well as reading. I started reading my work at the age of fourteen in local folk clubs and arts centres. I did this initially because I'm an attention whore and was also flattered to be invited. The first lesson I learned was that it is much easier to gauge public reaction to your work rather than reading it in public. The second lesson was that an audience with other primary interests provide much more honest feedback than poets who usually make an effort to be polite whilst privately comparing your work to their own. So, as a practitioner, I'm biased. I'm also of the view that serious poetry should be read aloud and work that can't be successfully transmitted in this way is thereby diminished.
This may seem blindingly obvious but a poem or part of a poem read aloud requires the audience to listen. Serious work thus transmitted requires attentive listening with the same degree of care as reading. Of course, it is very possible to do either of these things on a 'drive-by' basis, picking up on a number of facets but missing out on what might be going on.
Listening provides an additional aesthetic as to the sound of the work and a series of cues as to how a reading with the eyes should be done. Further, most of the fans of the poem that I know read aloud in their heads and occasionally read a section or whole poem out loud to get a better impression of how the assembled words work.
The final point in this set of excuses is that some poets who read their own work to an audience aren't very good at it. This is, of course, a subjective judgement but I have sat through readings by poets that I admire and cringed at the many ways the words are mangled, stumbled over and generally distorted. However, what follows is an example of a serious poet reading his difficult work very well indeed.
I can wallow in a sonorous reading many times over, in its rich depth and grandeur. I'm putting forward Jones as one of the modernist masters of sonority because his work read aloud attains an additional dimension over and above his text on the page. I'm fortunate to have recordings of the man himself reading from In Parenthesis, The Anathemata and The Hunt.
For those unfamiliar with the work, David Jones is one of the few towering figures in 20th century, Eliot put Jones on equal footing with Joyce and Auden was of the view that The Anathemata is the century's greatest long work. In Parenthesis concerns events leading up to and including the first day of the Somme offensive in 1916. This is part of Jones's account of the troops progress towards the German lines.
I would suggest that those readers who don't have a copy of both this and The Anathemata should buy them now. They will then be able to follow what they hear alongside the words on the page. Some aural purists might be of the view that this isn't necessary but this is very dense work and, although I'm reasonably familiar with the text, I find reading whilst listening in this instance enhances the heartbreaking beauty therein.
Here I'd like to draw particular attention to cadence, that tricky quality that is variously defined but sadly neglected in recent years but one that gives poetry its essential (mostly anyway) proximity to music. The poem, as with The Anathemata, is written in free verse but remains cadential by means of phrasing and stress. Some of the poem is set out in prose but Tom Dilworth has persuaded me that these paragraphs are poetry rather than prose poems and this passage bears this out. i've written very recently about the death of Captain Jenkins and so here present the two earlier pieces that look like prose:
You stumble on a bunch of six with Sergeant Quilter getting them out again to the proper interval, and when the chemical thick air dispels you see briefly and with great clearness what kind of a show this is.
And now the gradient runs more flatly toward the separate scarred saplings, where they make fringe for the interior thicket and you take notice.
What sets this apart from other war poetry of the period is the different kind of drama that's presented so that the reader (me, anyway) feels more intimately involved in the event. Some aspects of this are missed when reading solely with the eye, we tend to scan rather than take in and attend to every word especially with passages that are dense and complex, as above. These two parts of the poem in terms of phrasing, readers might miss the absence of the comma after 'chemical' and the missing 'a' between 'make' and 'fringe' in the second example. I like to think that I'm more attentive than most when reading poetry but I missed both of these until I read them out loud.
Regular readers will know that we should concentrate a bit less on the complexities of what might be going on a pay a bit more attention to what the man said about his intentions and how his major work must be read. This is from the preface to In Parenthesis:
It may be well to say something of the punctuation. I frequently rely on a pause at the end of a line to aid the sense and form. A new line, which the typography would not otherwise demand, is used to indicate some change. inflexion or emphasis. I have tried to indicate the sound of certain sentences by giving a bare hint of who is speaking, of the influences operating to make the particular sound I want in a particular instance by perhaps altering a single vowel in one word.
The references here to 'inflexion' and the making of a 'particular sound' not only explains and justifies the missing comma but it also indicates that there is at least an expectation that the reader will read some of the text aloud to get the best out of 'sense and form'. This might of course be reading my own biases and predilections into this.
I'd like now to sink deeper into self-indulgent guesswork with this longer and more explicit extract from the preface to The Anathemata:
I intend what I have written to be said. While marks of punctuation, breaks of line, lengths of line, grouping of words or sentences and variations of spacing are visual contrivances they have here an aural and oral intention. You can't get the intended meaning unless you hear the sound and you can't get the sound unless you observe the score; and pause marks on a score are of particular importance. Lastly, it is meant to be said with deliberation - slowly as opposed to quickly - but 'with deliberation' is the best rubric for each page, each sentence, each word.
I would especially emphasize this point, for what I have written will certainly lose half what I intend, indeed, it will fail altogether, unless the advice 'with deliberation' is heeded. Each word is meant to do its own work, but each word cannot do its work unless it is given due attention. It was written to be read in that way. And, as I said above, the spacings are of functional importance; they are not there to make the page look attractive - though it would a good thing should that result also.
Whilst I'm of the view that the general thrust of this is spot on for most serious work, I believe that you can get some of the 'intended meaning' without reading aloud especially in this instance where the notes only give guidance on pronunciation on some names and not on others. This seems to belie the point made above. Of course, the first principle of the arduity project relates to the absolute importance of paying careful attention to serious work.
I think it's reasonable to suggest that opinion is divided on The Anathemata with the currently prevalent view that it is too densely obscure and daunting for even the most dedicated reader. This isn't helped by the poem's overt espousal of conservative Roman Catholicism and exploration of the Eucharist. W H Auden was of the view however that it is the finest long view poem of the twentieth century even though he'd read it for ten years and still didn't understand it. I've recently come to the view that superlatives are not particularly helpful when thinking about individuals but I would agree that this is a brilliant and technically accomplished poem that is more than worthy of much wider recognition.
As an example of obscure RC complexity, this is from Mabinog's Liturgy which is the seventh part/chapter of The Anathemata;
To be fair, this particular piece of brow furrowing is accompanied by some of the poem's most extensive notes although. As text, things are set out in what looks like prose but I hope the recording more than demonstrates the intention that they should be experienced as poetry, as with the extract from In Parenthesis. The musical analogy, "unless you observe the score" is exemplified here, to get a rounder and more involving relationship with the poem, you do need to pay real attention to the words on the page and listen to how they sound.
I need now to think about cadence, a tricky quality that has been variously defined, these are quotes from the OED that might shed some light on what I'm probably trying to say:
I intend a mix of all the above as my entirely subjective and tenuous meaning of all things cadential. Since adolescence it has been apparent to me that if a poem doesn't have this quality then it doesn't work. A poem that is not cadential doesn't do what the Poem must. I know that this is probably hopelessly old fashioned and ignorant but it's a view that I can defend with a fair amount of vigorous acuity. This extract is soaked in cadence although I must admit that there are a couple of phrases that I would read differently to prevent them jarring with the rest of the text. This is one of my favourite poetry pastimes mainly due to the ridiculously high opinion I have in my giving voice abilities and my ear for poetic clunkiness. My version may or may not fulfill a poet's intentions but it certainly increases my sense of involvement.
In terms of reducing (rather than doing away with) the levels of obscurity, readers need to pay attention to the notes and often follow up on the signs therein to other subjects. This needs to be supplemented by spending time with a Welsh dictionary, a Latin dictionary and the RC New Advent encyclopedia. Additional time spent with theological and historical work on the Roman Mass is also fairly essential. Time that I've spent in this manner has proved immensely enjoyable and rewarding but I readily accept that most readers may not be that interested in context. For those I would suggest that becoming immersed in this particular music is a wonderful experience in itself.