I think I could learn to enjoy poetry if I could always hear it read by its authors. I had the pleasure to hear the featured guest writer for this year’s Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Naomi Shihab Nye read a selection of her poetry, short nonfiction essays, and fiction. This woman is simply amazing.
As a Palestinian-American (Naomi’s father’s family fled Palestine for America before she wasborn; her mother is American), she writes often about Arab-American relations and uses her words to plead for peace. But she also writes of more mundane topics that have had meaning for her. I think what I like most is that Naomi’s work is infused with her natural exuberance and great sense of humor, traits that are made abundantly clear when she reads her own work.
This year is the second I’ve attended the writers’ conference, and I found last year, too, that I thoroughly enjoyed the poetry readings by guest instructors. I think, like music, the words in poetry are meant to be spoken aloud. After all, song lyrics are just poems set to music.
Common advice for writers includes admonitions to read ones work aloud as part of the revision process. Linguistic oddities or stilted language become glaringly obvious when words are read aloud. When reading aloud, we cannot skip over awkward bits the way we might when reading silently.
I have to think that reading one’s work aloud is even more critical for poets. They are actively trying to achieve lyricism in their work, a quality that will be most obvious when heard rather than read. Additionally, good poetry is already so spare, each word carefully chosen and critical to the meaning of the poem that the reader must take her time and savor each word. Poetry cannot be read quickly, cannot be skimmed.
This, of course, is my problem. I seldom (never) read poetry, and on the rare occasion I do, have difficulty setting aside the habit of reading quickly, skimming for content but not savoring the music of the language. As a result, I am sure I often miss the meaning of the work, and certainly am not able to enjoy it.
Hearing a writer read her own work takes away all of these hindrances to enjoying poetry. As Naomi read her work, poetry and prose, she emphasized the words that held special meaning for her; used nuances of inflection, vocal tone, and physical gestures to underscore her meaning; and portrayed her written language as spoken music. What a great gift to her audience.
Now, I’d like your help. Do you have any favorite poems or poets I absolutely must read, whose words and messages might speak to me? I’m not making any promises, but I’d like to bring more poetry into my life, to take the time to read it slowly and aloud. I’m not sure where to start, however, besides with Naomi Shihab Nye, and would love to hear your recommendations. Thank you.