Last night I went to hear a poet friend of a poet friend give a reading. It was held at the Richard Hugo House, a vast Victorian house on Capitol Hill, surrounded by a garden, across the street from the neighborhood playfield. I could hear the shouts of people playing outside, a low thrum beneath the voices inside. What I remember from my experience at the Burning Word festival some months ago is that hearing poetry read aloud is an entirely different experience from reading it on the page. I regret to say that I do not remember any of the poems I heard last night, but I remember how they made me feel.
I had met B. at the poetry festival, but I had not heard his work before, and I was completely unprepared for how it made me feel. Perhaps that is the point, for someone’s words to catch you off guard, to stop your heart, stop you. He read a series of poems about death, about his time in Africa, about love, and then again about death. (To put it like that does not even begin to describe how beautiful they were). When he read the poems about death, (I believe they were connected to the end of his mother's life, and the aftermath) I was reminded of something I had written a long time ago, about Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, and how reading that story was the closest I had ever come to understanding how it might feel to die. Last night that same feeling came all over me again.
In The Fact and Fictions of Minna Pratt, which I read as a child many years ago, Minna describes how music played in the cavernous performance hall sounded different from how it did in the practice room; how the notes seemed to lift up into the darkness, hang there for a moment, and disappear into nothingness. When I hear music I forget the melodies, but I will remember the feel of it, almost like a touch against my skin. Poetry read aloud is like music, in that way, the words reverberating in the mind, in the heart, for just a moment, before they vanish into the air and are lost. (Particularly if you are like me, who never remembers anything).
Whereas poetry on the page bites into the flesh as starkly as black words on white paper, read aloud (particularly by the poet) it becomes a living creature, takes on the reader's breath, nuance, the words taking on the texture of his voice. Slides along your skin, and then slips away with barely a trace, leaving behind only the faintest of memories.