The leaves are starting to fly from the trees in the park across the street, settling in pools of red and brown on the grass, and, for some reason, this makes me want to start reading poetry out loud. It could be that the coming of cold weather ignites an ancient race memory of those long winter nights when there was nothing to do but sit around a fire and listen to stories or the repetitive rhythms of an epic poem. Or it could be that everything currently on television has become so amazingly paltry.
I used to believe there was a universal conspiracy against the reciting of poetry. For years, every time I began reading out loud, suddenly a car would start revving its engine below the window, or the buzz of a vacuum in the flat next door would shake the wall, or a group of drunken students would wander out of the dark, singing exuberantly (and off-key) some pop-song-of-the-minute. Once or twice, a helicopter decided to hover over the neighbourhood. Really. No lie.
Because of this, I began to form a personal myth that the urban landscape had attained consciousness, was a kind of jealous god that didn’t want anyone stepping outside the perimeters of his noisy little fiefdom. This was a god dedicated to speed, to things rushing by too fast to ponder or think about them, to channel surfing, to the constant noise occupying the mind.
Reading or listening to poetry requires attention. So, in my myth, my crappy urban god was desperate to censor anything that would cause me to focus, to feel something beyond the change-every-three-seconds consumer frenzy. The poem recited creates a space outside all that speed and noise. Sometimes, when I look up from the page at the end of a poem, I can feel it resonate through the room, through my body, and am left - for a few seconds - with pure perception, blinking like a newborn birthed into an old world.
Can good poetry actually compete against speed culture? Following the actual breath measure of a poem slows us down, allows the poet and their times to inhabit us. Call it ‘poet possession’. You could do worse than be possessed by the breath rhythms of Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’; or Ginsberg’s ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’; pretty much anything by Pablo Neruda; or (a new discovery for me) Lynette Roberts’ ‘Gods with Stainless Ears’.
With that in mind, as an antidote to all the chattering consumer noise this Halloween season, in honour of the coming of the dark, pick up some volume of a long dead poet and start to read out loud. See what happens.
This is a version of an Western Mail Insider books column published on Saturday 29 October 2011.
Christien Gholson blogs at http://christiengholson.blogspot.com/ and is available on cgholson[at]gmail.com. His story 'The Feed' appears in New Welsh Review 95, and his debut collection of prose poetry is On the Side of the Crow.
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Next week's blog: Tessa Hadley and Deborah Kay Davies in conversation with Gwen Davies at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, Wednesday 2 November