Friday, January 02, 2009

Reader's Diary #428- Shane L. Koyczan: Visiting Hours

Poetry snobs insist that poems, like some sort of anti-child, should be heard and not seen. At least heard and not read. But hermits like myself balk at the thought. Poetry that's published is meant to be read, and if I like it, then dammit, I'll read it. Others are more diplomatic. Less emphatic. "Poetry is better when heard, but okay on the page." Maybe it's my age, but my hearing is less attentive. Give me the page any day.

Can we have it both ways? A poet on stage who's as good on the page? Can typed words, when said aloud, keep you awake?

My first foray into reading "spoken word" (or is it performance poetry?) didn't go so well. Oni, The Haitian Sensation's Ghettostocracy was a horrible read, though she's won her fair share of poetry slams. Fortunately, along comes Shane Koyczan who shows you can have it both ways.

Without having heard Koyczan before, it still wasn't hard to tell these poems were probably intended for the stage. The fast pace and the use of both end rhymes and internal rhymes seem like just the sort of thing audiences would lap up:
and when I'm all alone
I'm rifling through the pockets
in the back of my mind
trying to find spare excuses
so I can call you on the phone

(from "Afraid," by Shane Koyczan)

Yet, I didn't get the sense Koyczan was pandering to an audience. Actual thought and care seemed to go into the words and it didn't seem all about some sort of linguistic agility or bravado:
and these hands melt down like candles
as they slide down into your love i can't handles

(from "These Hands," by Shane Koyczan)

No, I didn't think all the poems were perfect. Occasionally I found them overly sentimental and one or two seemed to overkill metaphors (the "driving" metaphor in "Pulse" was particularly annoying). However, these issues seemed to be the fault of the poems themselves, not a result of them having been transcribed. Fortunately, they were also in the minority.

Visiting Hours was published by House of Parlance Media in 2005. Download free Shane Koyczan mp3s, watch YouTube videos of him performing, etc here.

(Interestingly, I didn't find out Koyczan was from Yellowknife until after I read his book.)


laurasalas said...

Interesting post, John. I rarely hear poetry read aloud and I completely don't think it's better that way. I think it totally depends on who's performing it.

I do enjoy listening to poetry out loud (my Billy Collins CD is great!) when the poet or performer is skilled. But even then, I want/need to have the written word to refer to, then or later. I can't absorb nearly enough from audio versions--whether live or recorded--to take in a poem to the extent that I want to. And I've heard some poets whose work I love read those same poems, and had it be quite a letdown.

I also think certain kinds of poems, those with a strong rhythm and a confessional feel to them, tend to work great as performance poems, while some quieter poems just don't translate as well to performance--at least not in front of a crowd. But that doesn't make them less valid to me. I think reading aloud a poem to yourself allows you to appreciate the spoken value of it just as much as hearing it performed.

Thanks for getting my brain thinking about this!

Anonymous said...

I enjoy poems both ways - on the page and aloud. Reading them aloud myself is sometimes good, too - I get to read and hear them that way.

Can you do me a favor and shoot me an email at kelly at kellyfineman dot com so I can contact you about the CYBILS? Finalists have been named, and I'm going to set up a Yahoo! group for judges, but I'll be needing info from you for that. Thanks!

John Mutford said...

Laura: I should remind myself not to blog when tired. I think I came across much more snitty, and much more against listening to poetry, than I really am. I do have a load of poetry mp3s that I do like listening to. You make a very good point about the skill of the poet/performer. Last year I was given an excellent collection of poems called The Poem I Turn To that came with a cd. Some of my favourite poems in the book were read in such a dreary monotone that I was turned off, yet other poems I just passed over on the page, won me over through hearing it read well.

Kelly: I think that's the important thing-- finding what works for us. I think the "poetry snobs" I refered to in my post (much less common than I probably implied) are just those who dictate the way the rest of us "should" enjoy poetry. If I want to hear all my poetry whispered in a Southern drawl interspersed with hiccups, that should be my prerogative.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think I prefer to have poems read to me, but I think that is more a matter of laziness. Except I hate having anything read by those authors who feel they must read their writing in a bored voice that suggests they would rather be sticking rusty needles in their eyes than reading aloud. They know who they are.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy listening to poetry out loud but I enjoy it more if I've read it or am reading along. There's something about knowing how it's spelled and set out that makes it more meaningful to me.