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‘Radio, Radio: Making Poetry Sound’

I listened to The Verb on Radio 3 long before I ever appeared on it, and before I made my first radio documentary. I remember Ken Campbell talking about language, Wendy Cope making poems about going to classical music concerts. It was exciting and inspirational to hear people on the radio talking about poetry, and with such close attention to minutiae.

But it wasn’t always a smooth listening experience. There was once a broadcast performance of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, with atmospheric mood music and sound effects that seemed to say it should be taken oh-so-significantly but which added little genuine significance. As I drove listening, I was viscerally shocked by the Southern English voice on it, exactly as Bunting himself predicted “Southrons” would do, managing to “maul the music”. And I remember a version of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, also not read by the poet and also with atmospheric sound, that seemed to flatten out the poem as I knew it.

This is because, in both cases, I knew Bunting’s and Hill’s own readings. I knew them as you know a music album in the days before “shuffle”. I knew what came next section by section, and I also had particular expectant feelings around each transition: equivalents of “here comes the fast section”, and “here comes the dark and moody bit”. I knew several different recordings by Bunting, certainly of the opening of Briggflatts, and had compared them much more favourably than I compared one by him with one not by him. Remember, there is no sheet music, no allegro or time signature. And these are long poems of 25 + pages. And yet Bunting’s different readings of Briggflatts always followed similar, subtle, textures faithfully: building up their music. In fact, I began early on, from listening to them, to conceive that maybe some of a text is always waffle in order to get the writer in the zone: albeit necessary workmanlike waffle with, like any good narrative, a reason for being there. But, musically speaking, it was ok to write knowing that you’d have a best line by the end of it; and that the way to get to the best line was by building up the musical texture (and then hoping, afterwards, that you hadn’t made the filler-bits too excruciating to live with – because, chances are, you’d need them or the best line wouldn’t work without them).

I listened to lots of poetry on tape like this: Eliot’s Four Quartets, read by him and by Alec Guinness; Larkin reading his poems; Under Milk Wood; oh, and some Pete and Dud sketches, over and over. So that whole sections would pop into my mind as earworms, without any conscious learning work from me. In each case, I was disappointed to see the audio accompanied by visuals, when everything eventually got put on to YouTube. I still like pure sound.

I also got very interested in playwriting and screenwriting.  I was impatient about live theatre, wanting always to get to the sound of the spoken text without complication. In making theatre, I did not enjoy all the blocking and rehearsing, although I liked learning the part, letting the language find a way to arrange itself, feeling all the words there and able to be run fast and slow and along movements of the wave of performance, pretty much spontaneously. I liked screenwriting, because it didn’t require prodigious speech-learning but getting each fragment in the head, captured, then out of the head again. When you could get funding to do it, which was not often. The word was always that writing for radio was more do-able, and you could be more experimental.

Drama, though, is its own skill and, again, not my main interest. I had always been devoted to listening to recordings of poems repetitively. I quite liked live radio when I got to hear it, but made no devoted attempt to tune in to programmes, except radio comedy – which, again, I was, in a way, trying to memorise. In some ways, iPlayer and listen again features have helped with my fairweather approach to radio, although my key criterion remained: I liked Radio 3 and 4 for always being of a consistent quality, never amateur, and never too um and ah; brisk without being flashy. I wouldn’t seek out radio practitioners; I’d just be glad when they happened to be broadcasting when I happened to tune in.

These two elements (briskness in day to day radio, and a musical texture to a recorded poem like a good album moving from track to track that had could only be achieved by a committed performer) formed my tastes. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the performer must always be the poet. I like Alec Guinness’ reading of Four Quartets, I adore to pieces Ian McKellen’s recording of parts of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and I strongly dislike George Oppen’s readings of his own poems.

I discovered this last point when I was a temporary creative writing lecturer. I would attempt to find audio and sometimes video of nearly every poem I taught. I noticed that students were routinely happier to have their first encounters with poets that way. Oppen, though, whose work I hadn’t previously heard read aloud (except, perhaps, in my head silently as I read his books) destroyed all the playfulness and skippety quality of the work on the page. Recordings often do read, run-on, ignoring the line breaks. Oppen’s don’t even sound like poems: they sound like a bore, being boring and glum.

So, I don’t teach audio as the answer to everything poem. I do teach audio as doubly important in the new world of spoken word (much of which I like). The spoken word world can rely on theatrics, or on the visible catharsis of the performer, and I don’t really want to care about that at the cost of everything else (much as I like it as an antidote to the stuffy stiff collar or slovenly shuffle of the poetry reading). It is, in many ways, presented word. Or spoken as in “I speak my truth”.

I’m more interested in the sprechgesang, learning from time signature and aural texture and attack (or loose influence from these).  I particularly like the way that words cluster and make a wave, ebb and flow. In the case of Ian McKellen reciting Wordsworth, they convey, like great Shakesperean acting, a naturalistic tone that never jars the formal pattern out of whack. There is a school, too, of capturing the exact sound of people speaking conversationally, and then adjusting a pattern under it, or a context around it, so that it is the human thing in an analytical or estranging artwork. That also works.

How, above all, though, do we make recordings that people will want to hear over and over? I think one answer is: create a continuum; you’re making recordings and you’ll be doing live radio to get people into them (and used to your voice); do this by becoming a radio person. Be brisk, and establish good priorities. For example, be forgiving of your um and ah, as long as you’re thinking of the audience and of pace. Of all the things I dreaded doing on radio, the worst was drying up and hesitating. This is why I was lucky to appear on programmes with several guests. What I learned was: let the programme move on if you’ve dried up. The programme is not about revealing the definitive you, or the definitive take on the issue; it’s about going with the flow of the show.  The audience will hear, in a syllable, a sense of what you have to say. They will forgive you um and ah, because what they want is the moment where you untighten a little, and sigh out your meaning. And sometimes the awkwardness en route is a necessary part of that. Trust yourself, and let the words come out.

Second, think about sound and try to listen to playbacks of yourself, and try to make something long. Listen out for what works. Try to listen to performers who try the same text a number of ways: fast, slow, emotional, dry, interrupted, competing with other sounds. Try different things with your text. And consider it quite the other way around too: think of a sound world that makes the hairs stand up on your neck, then add words to them. Maybe don’t write them down first. Make your first draft with your mouth. Then edit it with your ear. Rather than pen and eye. Think of all the things you like listening to: both to pass the time and never hear again; or to revisit as a recording. Become what you like hearing.

“Become what you like hearing” and unleash the sonic potential of your poetry and verse drama on Ira’s latest online course, Radio, Radio: Making Poetry Sound. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.


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