Saturday, July 16, 2011

An Argument for Reading Poetry Aloud

By Glynn Young

I’m at a suburban St. Louis festival, with food booths and politicians campaigning and jugglers and pony rides for the children, plus craft and antique booths for the adults. And bands are scheduled to play throughout the day, and I can hear Dixieland jazz floating over a summer afternoon. 

Not surprisingly, I’m in the pavilion for the used book sale, which raises funds for a local orchestra. It’s smallish by used book fair standards, but it’s has about 2,000 books sorted by category. I find one small shelf titled “POETRY,” and I spot the smallest book on the smallest shelf. Interestingly enough, it’s not a poetry book, but an essay written by a poet. 

Padraic Colum (1881-1972) was an Irish writer who worked in most genres – poetry, biography, fiction, children’s stories, literary criticism and folklore among them. He was one of the leading lights of the so-called Celtic Revival, which stretched from the 18th until well into the 20th century. Colum was close friends with William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, among a host of other literary figures; he actually helped Joyce in the transcription of Finnegan’s Wake.   

In 1927, Colum published a book of essays called The Fountain of Youth. Among them was one entitled Story Telling New and Old, a kind of apologetic for oral storytelling for children and reading poetry and having children memorize poems--not exactly the current fashion in education circles today. This essay was reissued as a single, small volume by The Macmillan Company in 1961, when Colum received the Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association. 

This was the small book I held in my hands at the used book sale. I knew who Padraic Colum was, but I had only read a few of his poems. The sales price was all of $2, so I bought it. When I got home, I discovered it was actually signed by the author. It will forever remain a mystery how an autographed book half a century old ended up at a festival book sale in St. Louis.  

“It has been discovered,” Colum writes, “that there is still a place in the world for an oral art – for story-telling.” He describes the kind of storytellers he knew as a child, adults who told a story well but who also essentially acted it out, with sounds and noises, gestures, body movements and facial expressions. “He told his stories in the evening; he told them by the light of a candle and a peat fire – often by the light of a peat fire only. There were shadows upon the walls around.” Describing the storyteller and his art becomes, for Colum, a kind of story in and of itself. 

He then moves on to poetry, “…in so far as it is oral, in connection with oral stories. Children should be got not merely to read and know poetry, but to possess some part of the heritage of poetry. They should know poems by heart – a dozen, twenty, forty, fifty poems.” This is more than only about poetry; this is learning culture, and a culture, and how to learn culture. And it is about what “holds our attention,  that helps us to bring our minds to a focus. That underlying something is rhythm.” He goes on to say that it also teaching ethics, and that every child should be taught some system of ethics. 

What’s particularly interesting is how Colum links memorization of poems with creativity. Through the possession or a part of the heritage of poetry, of story, children can enter or keep in the world that has been spoken about – the world of imagination, thought , and intuition.” 

I went looking for Colum’s poems. The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine, has put its entire collection on the web, and there I found many of his poems when they were first published (and before they were collected). 

The March 1914 edition is rather amazing to sift through. There are several poems by Carl Sandburg, including “Chicago,” with its “City of Big Shoulders” line. You can find poems by Sara Teasdale and Edwin Arlington Robinson and extended editorial comments by Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound. And two poems by Colum – “The Sea Bird to the Wave” and “Three Spinning Songs.” Here is the third of the three spinning songs: 

An old woman sings:

   There was an oul trooper went riding by
   On the road to Carricknabauna,
   And sorrow is better to sing than cry,
   On the way to Carricknabauna.
   And as the oul trooper went riding on
   He heard this sung by a crone, a crone
   On the road to Carricknabauna. 

   “I’ll spread my cloak for you, young lad,
   Were it only the breadth of a farthen’
   And if your mind was as good as your word,
   In troth, it’s you I’d rather!
   In dread of any jealousy
   And before we go any farther
   Carry me up to the top of the hill
   And show me Carricknabauna!” 

   “Carricknabauna, Carricknabauna,
   Would you show me Carricknabauna?
   I lost a horse at Cruckmoylinn –
   At the cross of Bunratty I lost a limb –
   But I left my youth on the crown of the hill
   Over by Carricknabauna!”

                Girls, young girls, the rush-light is done.
                What will I do when my thread is spun? 

To read it is one experience; to read it aloud – as Colum would have intended – is a totally different experience. You catch the language, the sounds and the rhythm. It indeed becomes more memorable, and hearing your voice tell the story helps explain what is happening, and what this “song” is really about.

This isn’t simply a literary argument in favor of reading stories and poetry aloud. “For the human voice,” he says in his essay, when it can really charge itself with what is in a poem or a story, more powerfully than any other agency, can put into our deeper consciousness those lasting patterns which belong to the deeper consciousness of the race.” 

Show me Carricknabauna!


  1. I imagine hearing that poem in Colum's Irish voice is what makes the poem especially memorable.

  2. I find myself reading out loud more of stories and poems that have dialogue spelled phonetically to imply accent or regionalism- in this way, reading aloud does preserve the flavor of the local. Great post by Glynn, thanks for hosting him, Michael!

  3. I agree that poetry should be read out loud. I think it changes everything. And, wow, what a treat--an autographed treasure! Sounds like you were in just the right place, looking in those smallish ways :).

  4. I get it... The reading aloud creates an entirely new experience of the poetry. Why has that been lost in our education system?

  5. Hi, Bradley. I just posted some of the reasons I think we don't read aloud much on Charity's blog. It's indirectly an answer to your piece Blogging is Stupid.

    To summarize:
    1. We think nobody would listen.
    2. It's easier for writers to live in their imaginations.
    3. Too often we write with an eye on the market.

  6. The Lyric Arts Forum blog is virtual reality of an entity that has existed over many years among our musical and literary friends. In living rooms and various auditoriums we have soirees that embody some of Padraic Colum's dimensions and accentuate the lyric arts. Lyric arts, in this sense, include meter, rhyme, and dramatic interpretation in poetry but also poetry set to music. There are a couple of examples on the blog: Robert Herrick's great love poem To Julia in a song setting by Roger Quilter. There is an audio link page and also here: Song Cycle by Roger Quilter.
    Also the Dvořák Biblical Songs

    The great thing about this forum is that it can be created by any group of readers or musicians. Send out invitations to participants and auditors and it happens.

  7. I'd sure love to hear you reading aloud, sporting a gaelic brogue, Glynn. Eugene Peterson speaks woefully of how we as a culture are losing our voice. A sad tragedy we perhaps can turn around? This makes me want to gather children on my lap.....and read to them. Thank you.

  8. I always advocated memorization in my classroom; I was all by myself.

    It's a wonderful skill -- and after the students completed it, they were certainly proud.

    I gave it up in my last couple of years ---

    Interesting book you found.

  9. My English teacher when I was in high school made me memorize a pretty sizable chunk of the Prologue to Chaucer's Canturbury Tales. I thouht it was a crazy thing to do then... .

  10. When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher required every student she had to memorize a soliloquy from Shakespeare. She said that unless you had memorized one soliloquy, you could not be considered educated. So I memorized the "dagger speech" from Hamlet. And I still remember it 40 years later.

  11. The most enduring vestige of reading aloud is liturgical worship in which readings, creeds, and Eucharist are formal and not extensively footnoted. A choir director at Trinity Episcopal in Seattle used to say, “These things are ruined if they are explained”. There is something about declaiming scripture or verse that stands by itself. Jesus said his parables were to conceal as well as to instruct.

    David McCracken, professor of English at the University of Washington and author of The Scandal of the Gospels was inspired to work in the area of the Bible as literature after a performance of Brad Sherrill's recitation of the entire Gospel of John.