Learning and Teaching Poetry Through Audio Recordings

Activities and Strategies

Following is a suggestive list. For clarity, the activities are divided between critical/analytical and creative/productive responses. These divisions are suspect, and some of these activities would likely inspire students to question them in the process of exploring the activity. These activities can be ends in themselves, or can be enmeshed within larger analytical projects where readers explore the significance of paralinguistic features in the interpretation of the poem, contrast multiple authorial performances, etc. Some activities could also be taught in the wider context of a history of "poetry readings" or reading styles in relation to poetic conventions, literary schools, reception, etc.

Criticism / Close-listening

Close listening is meant to parallel the familiar practice of close reading, as an attention to formal and material features of the poem. Despite the historic recognition of sounds' importance in poetry reception, only audio recording technology allows for the iterative listening that permits close analysis. It need not entail the attendant New Critical ideology of the autotelic object.

1. Expressive Transcription

Represent the verbal content and paralinguistic elements (tempo, loudness, pitch, tension, rhythm, voice, pausing) visually. Use font-sizes and styles or other legible symbols to document heard features and/or to provide a score for oral re-voicing.

Examples include Dennis Tedlock's Learning to Listen - Oral History as Poetry as developed in his The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation (U Penn Press, 1983); Sherwood's expressive transcriptions of Baraka paratexts (7) and Vicuna text-performance variations (10, 13) in "Elaborate Versionings" Oral Tradition 21.1

2. Standardized transcription

Notate the verbal content and paralinguistic elements (tempo, loudness, pitch, tension, rhythm, voice, pausing) using standardized markup (such as the XML/TEI tags for transcription of verse, speech, and performance.

Sherwood's Poetry Transcription Teaching Guide (draft) and markup of student transcriptions

3. Versioning transcriptions

Notate the verbal content and paralinguistic elements (tempo, loudness, pitch, tension, rhythm, voice, pausing) using expressive and/or standardized markup. Identification, comparison, discussion of variant performances and/or disjunctions between authorized print texts and the verbal/performative content of the performance transcript.

4. Criticism / Distant Listening

Use of visualization tools such as ARLO, Audacity, or Sonic Visualizer to assess patterns across a given public reading or across audio from multiple events.

5. Criticism / Ethnography of the Public Performance

Explore how the occasion, place and audience for a public poetry reading shapes the selection and sequence of materials.

There is an emerging critical interest in the study of the reading-series milleaux, including the conventions surrounding poets' self-presentation (Are poems introduced? Is there a prepared sequence? Does the reading put individual poems into different relationships than their book publication? Are there indicators of the performance being site-specific?) and the habits of the audience (Is their clapping? Do audiences ask questions or comment? See Peter Middleton's Distant Reading: Performance, Readership and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry. Some of these goals could also be explored by students attending and recording poetry readings of their own choosing.

Speaking Back / Performative or Digital Audio Productions

Criticism is clearly a form of speaking back to literature, and of course the best criticism is always creative. Digital audio editing (DAE) and the rise of networked culture present a number of opportunities for performative or productive engagement with poetry audio. Some of these approaches are quite common outside of literary communities (music mix-tapes, sampling, Youtube Mashups, etc.) but are not always considered as valuable ways for readers to engage with poetry.

6. Podcast: Review / Commentary

Work with primary audio materials and combine with explanation, interpretation, contextualization or analysis. Edit and publish podcasts on the web.

7. Podcast: Poetry DJ

Construct a presentational podcast, where the student carefully chooses and sequences a selection of poems (or playlist). Edit and publish podcasts on the web. (Something similar could be accomplished with the creation of simple set-lists.)

Here is a presentational podcast of the poet Cecilia Vicuna - Sherwood Script

8. Podcasts: Creative Deformations and Remixes

Create a sound piece that includes one or more poems but transforms the work. The poems may be selected and edited to isolate certain features, comment on themselves, or otherwise be manipulated to disclose previously unrecognized features.

Brian Humphrey's Mashup or his Critical Collage isolating the framing characteristics of contemporary poetry readings. See also Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, Deformance and Interpretation for a discussion of the critical merits of deformative reading or what, after Emily Dickinson, they call "reading backwards".

9. Podcast / Re-readings

Students perform and record their own dramatic oral readings of the poems. They may juxtapose poems, provide alternate takes, embed the poems within music, or otherwise reframe the text.

Re-readings might aim towards producing an alternative version, with a discourse around the significance of the differences introduced. This helps open students to experience the expressiveness of spoken performance and can also simply lead to a deeper interpretation of the poem. (The rationale here is similar to the traditional activity of having students memorize and deliver poems).

Here is a quickly made collaborative piece with 20 high-school students, which is also a kind of remix: Constantly Risking the Road

Readers are invited to contribute their ideas to KWSherwood AT gmail DOT com

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