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Poetry as the Heard Word

Does hearing a poem change its meaning?

Three days after the Boston Marathon bombings last April, a grieving campus and city largely ignored a BU poetry reading by Pulitzer winner Paul Muldoon. Simon Mendes did attend, and he listened as Muldoon read “Comeback,” his poem about a rock band, its stanzas punctuated by a music-style chorus. Muldoon began:

We were introduced by Bruce
At the Stony Pony
All that concentrated Juice
Standing room only
You were with some suit
From EMI or Sony
Who was so full of toot
He called for “Mony Mony”

Muldoon’s reading changed Mendes’ understanding of the poem. He drew out all the poem’s “a” sounds, as if to audibly puncture the numbness that engulfed Bostonians after the bombings, says Mendes (CGS’11, CAS’13). When he got to the chorus, Muldoon altered it from the written work, saying,

To make a comeback
A comeback don’t you see
It’s time to come back
Come back to me.

On the page, this plea is made to a nameless baby; Muldoon dropped that word, leaving Mendes free to fill in the blank: was the poet talking to his band-mate, or a woman—or to his bombing-traumatized listeners? Mendes believes Muldoon was trying “to bring the audience back to language and feeling, after a week with so much shock and awe.…Didn’t we all need a comeback?

“I felt transfixed,” he says. “I was lost in the language. I couldn’t re-create this atmosphere reading it to myself.”

That transformation of a poem, as it moves from written to spoken word, was an experience that Mendes would relive as his own guinea pig in an admittedly subjective study last spring through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. If Emily Dickinson was right that there is no frigate like a book/to take us lands away, does a book of poems need to be heard, not read, to convey us to those distant shores of imagination? Mendes sought an answer by reading and then listening to more than a half dozen poets, plugging into their online recitations of their work—an experience that BU Today has replicated with three student poets in our studio. You can simulate Mendes’ experiment by following the steps below.

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First read the poem and ask yourself the following questions: What was the poem about? Which images stood out? How would you describe the music of the poem? How would you describe the poet’s voice as you hear it in your head?

Then, after watching the video of that same poem, ask yourself the same questions. Did your answers change? Were some ideas clearer than others when the poem was read? Did you notice anything new about the poem? How did the music of the poem and the poet’s voice compare to how you had imagined them?

Back to Poem

The Amoeba Game

I stood at the stove holding
a wooden spoon in my right hand,
listening to butter sputtering against
the splattered circle of an egg. Perhaps
it was the flapping of the egg’s
wavy edges against the steel pan,
or the amorphousness of its innards
outside the carriage of its brown shell—
I remembered an odd game I played
in Brownies. The amoeba game.
In the front yard of the scout cabin,
one girl at a time would become
an amoeba and lead the rest.
We didn’t know what amoebas were,
only that they weren’t human or animal,
and moved like a thousand blind legs
treading through molasses.
So it was that our heads and arms
became legs and feet, undulating
wayward into dusk. Swaying our shoulders
left to right, we’d giggle through mouths
we weren’t supposed to have, pretending
we had no eyes and didn’t know where
we came from or where we were going.

—Previously published in Poet Lore

Back to Poem


You say, “How fine this weather is!”
And I think, What on earth could you be referencing?

Weather? Weather? What weather?
All I can see is sky and a couple of clouds.

There’s a seagull flying between the two things:
A white wave like a “w” amidst the blue and the white.

Weather is certainly not here. But you are,
And your eyes, so full of health that they shine

Like the water glistening in the sunshine like
A marquee at night, and I see—you are fine, you are fine.

Back to Poem

Cartagena Sunrise—April 2009

The guitars finally hushed their trebled
chords over the sand. Accordions rested
their bellows. Even the twelve-year-old
boys stored away their peddler chants
two hours ago:

Fruta fresca, aguardiente, ron.
Señor, les canto un vallenato?

Only wind and breakers serenade
wooden shutters that chatter
behind white balconies
and the stupor of half-naked bodies.

Parranda santa, the locals call it. A week
not quite holy, miles from cloud covered
processions of

Ave Maria, gloria al padre, padre nuestro…

On the beach, embers of last night’s

bonfire doze, outshined by morning
heat. Palms awaken in lazy sweat.

An emptied rum bottle exhumed by the tide.
A gray body entangled in barnacles and seaweed.

Repentant men climb up the mountain
on their knees, leaving behind shreds of sin
for hungry ocelots. The most penitent
husbands get nailed to a cross.
Grandmothers wail.

Ruega por nosotros…

The notion of using the eyes and ears to appreciate poetry is nothing new. Mendes’ UROP advisor, Meg Tyler, notes that early Western poetry was oral performance, with the ancient Greeks strumming lyres as they recited. Tyler (UNI’04), a College of General Studies associate professor of humanities, directs BU’s Poetry Reading Series, and she has seen for herself how hearing can enrich understanding.

The UROP project was informed by Tyler’s teaching last year in Austria, where she wondered if her Austrian students would grasp the English-language poems they read. “For the most part, they got it, and I think it’s a result of having grown up with the internet, video recordings, audio recordings, watching American telly, watching American movies. They have a sense of the language…that surprised me.” And not just students: when Irish poet Ciaran Carson read at BU this year while performing on the tin whistle, “he just brought Belfast into the room with his accent,” Tyler says. “And I had a deeper understanding of his poems than I’d had from years of reading them.”

One advocate for the idea that the words you see here (the poetic ones, anyway) are best heard rather than read is a former US poet laureate. In that role, Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, launched the Favorite Poem Project in 1997, which archived videos of Americans reading their favorite poems. The site cites Pinsky’s conviction that poetry should be read aloud: “If a poem is written well, it was written with a poet’s voice and for a voice. Reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem is like the difference between staring at sheet music or actually humming or playing the music on an instrument.”

Still, Tyler does put in a word for the written word. “I’m a textual scholar,” she says. “My commitment throughout my professional life has been to the text. I don’t want it to be entirely divorced from the text that you see on the page, because to me, it was that intimate, solitary adventure of going through a poem on my own, and understanding just the music of the words, in my own voice, that was very special.”

Elizabeth Loizeaux, a CAS English professor and an associate provost, teaches poetry and believes that listening to, speaking, and reading poems all have their merit. The first “concentrates the experience on the music of poetry—the rhythms, sounds, the interpretation of the performer. It reminds us of poetry’s origin in music.” Reciting poetry aloud, she says, forces you to conform your reading to the meaning you get from the poem: “where to put the emphasis, where to pause, where the voice should rise and fall.

“Of course, you can read poetry silently to yourself,” she says, “where you can hear and feel the music of the poem in your head, if you slow down and listen.”

As for Mendes, his project left him rendering a mixed verdict. “Sometimes I may just want to read a poem from the page, and sometimes I might prefer to listen to it read. It depends on how much I need to escape this Earth and myself…”

That, as the poet said, can make all the difference.

We want to know what you think. Do you experience a poem differently when reading it versus hearing it read aloud? Which do you prefer? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section below.

This story was originally published on October 10, 2013.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

7 Comments on Poetry as the Heard Word

  • Nathan on 10.10.2013 at 9:36 am

    In a year of weekly poetry readings (to an online audience of 15-30) I passed around the text of the poems while I was reading them aloud. I presume this allowed my audience to ‘catch up’ if their attention lapsed or they misheard a word, as well as experience the variation between my reading and their internally voiced reading of the poem. – Many of the poems were written by poets in attendance, who thus experienced their words read aloud by someone else. – Depending on the reader, I prefer my poems read aloud by someone else. The reader giving it a different emphasis often hightlights hidden meanings or what I wrote as secondary meanings.

  • Carol Brockfield on 10.10.2013 at 3:21 pm

    I find that the reader stands between me and the poem when I am hearing it aloud. When I read it silently from the words on the page, I am free to travel with it.

  • Michael Haig on 10.11.2013 at 1:25 am

    Reading a poem on the page is perhaps preferable: you can see the lines, the enjambments, which are heightened by the bare page on which the poem is written. These are not so apparent when the poem is read for you. On the other hand, having the poem read for you may heighten other technicalities: alliteration, assonance, general word-play, rhyme. So both ways of experiencing a poem are rewarding. A poem one really likes, in order to be savoured, benefits from both kinds of transmission: one wants to read it for oneself and one wants to hear it read, if possible by the author himself/herself.

  • RJS. on 10.13.2013 at 5:47 pm

    Poetry, like music, is an ‘aural’ art, only accessible to our feeling when we listen to it inside. Both arts have an external component (voice, sound, text, etc…) but always resonate deeply as an internal experience that we’re invited to hear, whether read aloud or silently to ourselves. Poems in print and voice are two media for the same message – are you in a place to enunciate the poem, or is it a quiet moment of unheard sound?

    Physical expression can dissolve boundaries between inside and out, self and other, creating an experience of communion. We share in each other by listening together in the same moment! And that is new and different, uniquely accentuated, every time.

  • KJL on 11.04.2013 at 6:50 pm

    Poetry, having its roots in orally transmitted stories, is something that should be listened to out loud. Whenever I read a poem to myself I seem to miss out on the literary stylistic devices, such as alliteration. That being said, it seems possible for someone to interoperate the meaning of the poem differently reading it, opposed to hearing it.

  • Laurie on 06.24.2014 at 9:56 am

    Thank you for sharing this terrific project in this interactive format. Having struggled for years to “get” poetry by reading it, i felt as if a new world opened up when I heard Charles Wright read from his work some 15 years ago and then had the pleasure of sitting next to him at lunch. Although I am not sure that hearing poetry *changes* its meaning, hearing it certainly *gave* it meaning to me.

  • Lawrence Willson on 02.20.2017 at 5:27 pm

    To make a poem
    is to speak the hush
    and speaking the hush
    to bespeak silence
    that speaks for all things
    that need not be said
    to be soundly heard.

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