If you subscribe to Annie’s Spellsletter, where I share magical snippets of my poems designed to move will, mind, body, heart, and spirit, then you know that my motto for absorbing/appreciating/adoring a poem is :
I typically approach a poem by inviting myself to speak it three times aloud (either actually saying it aloud, whispering, or simply ‘hearing’ it silently in real time—more on this below). If a poem can stand up to the invitation, the odds are that it will transform itself through rich depths of nuance by the end of the third reading. Of course, it’s no coincidence that thrice is traditionally the requisite number of sayings to activate a spell, for as subscribers to this Substack likely know, meter and magic grow from the same root word.
If you are primarily used to reading poems in free verse, reading metrical poems aloud can help you “en-rhythm” yourself (a word invented by a member of Meter Magic Spiral) with their physical patterning. It will also calm down your inner critics, those anxious inner voices my students often unload about when they first enter Meter Magic Spiral or one of my classes). Meter-fearing voices are widespread in our culture (perhaps especially, based on what I hear from my students, within creative writing classrooms), ready to remind us that the enjoyment of language’s rhythms is “childish,” ‘trivial,” “self-indulgent,” “embarrassing,” or “silly” (let’s remember that last word descends from the Anglo-Saxon ‘selig,’ meaning “holy”).
I’ve posted here on Poetry Witchery before about the deeply subversive potential of poetic meter today—precisely because its pleasures threaten the unquestioned dominance of that smugly super-rational voice (a voice that, paradoxically but not surprisingly, enables the current cultural madness to reign). In my view, the practice of meter—within the context of metrical diversity!— has the potential to be truly “postmodern,” a topic I will post about in more detail later. Each time we #speakitthrice, we honor the body, heart, and spirt in a poem, inviting ourselves to absorb it with the musical right brain as well as the logical left brain, opening ourselves to surrender into fullest enjoyment.
Please don't feel intimidated by this #speakitthrice idea if you know nothing about meter. Most people who have loved poetry throughout history, even most poets who write in meter, haven't known the names of meters or how to scan. Meter-loving poets such as myself may take on prosody (the study of form and meter) more consciously just because there’s so much healing to do, but in practice, the metrical level in poems is still, as always, designed to work behind the scenes. Just as you don't need to read music to enjoy it, you don't need to know anything about meter to absorb/appreciate/adore metrical poems. All you need to do is #speakitthrice!
I once summarized my best tips for saying poems into the Introducton to my little anthology Measure for Measure.
HOW TO READ POETRY IN METER ALOUD
Adapted from the preface of Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver (Everymans Library, 2018).
To enjoy [metrical] poems most fully, READ THEM ALOUD. You can do this in the usual way, or you can read them “silent-aloud”: allowing the sounds of the words to enter your awareness physically as you read. Either way, you will feel how different meters change a poem’s energy, how they affect your heart, mind, and body. As you absorb the poems in this way, you will actually be using a different part of your brain (your right brain, activated when we hear music or metrical poetry) than you use when you read poetry without meter (which you understand with your left brain, where we understand prose).
Metrical poems are meant to be absorbed and savored as you move along. Try reading quite slowly, tasting the feel of the poem in your mouth (this is most fun aloud of course, but you can do it even if you are reading silent-aloud.) To best get the hang of it, at least whisper the poems, if you can’t say them aloud for some reason. It will be fun to pay attention to any physical sensations you have as you read (your heart racing, a sense of excitement in your stomach, your heart slowing, a relaxing of your shoulders, or a sense of calm).
The key to performing metrical poetry aloud, on which all other fluency rests, is to mark the end of every single line with an audible—but not too audible—pause. If it’s too audible, you can distract yourself or your listeners mentally by interrupting a sentence. But what most people raised on free verse don’t realize is that if the pause isn’t audible enough, you will create an even worse distraction, a physical one, by burying the physical signposts created by the pauses at the end of each line. This end-of-line signpost is necessary to align the lines with each other as we experience the poem. Performing metrical poetry the way we perform free verse—by continuing sentences across the linebreaks without a pause—forces listeners to steal attention from the meaning of the poem while they reorient themselves within the pattern of lines. Good performers of metrical poetry, on the other hand, signal each line-ending appropriately. They communicate, audibly and with grace, sensitivity, and panache, the place of each line-ending within its own sentence and also within the larger passages and movements of the poem.
Luckily, metrical poems that know what they are doing make it easy and pleasurable to perform them well. When you encounter a sentence that continues past the line-ending, try giving just a slight physical bow to the line-ending by lengthening the final syllable of the line just a hair—maybe by about 25% of the length of a normal syllable—as you pass it by. Aim to signal the line-ending clearly and unequivocally with your voice—yet to do it so briefly that, even while the listener’s body is acknowledging the start of a new line, their mind won’t even notice but will remain entirely focused on the words, just as if they were hearing prose.
When the line ending corresponds with a comma, a phrase ending, or some other break in the meaning, you can pause a tiny bit longer. And when the line ending corresponds with a sentence ending, then you will have the opportunity to stop as long as you like, choosing the most expressive length for your pause. Finally, if the line ending coincides with a larger turning in the poem’s meaning—a place where words offer the opportunity for reflection or suspense—you might pause still longer for really dramatic effect. One of the joys of performing great metrical poetry is the opportunity to embody a poem as if it were music. And the choices we make as we interact with the line-endings of the poem, in real time, are some of the most important musical instruments at our disposal.
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