Today is World Read Aloud Day. I’m not one for anniversaries; my mind doesn’t work that way. But I thought I had something to say about this one.
Reading aloud is particularly important to me. I once invited a few people over for Shabbat dinner, and read the entire text of the story “Yentl” to two or three of the guests, while waiting for the others to arrive. It took about forty minutes. I’m fairly sure they weren’t just being polite. I mean… nobody is that polite right? Okay, let me rephrase. No New York Jew would be that accommodating in the midst of their own mounting discomfort, right?
“Yentl” is also a favorite story to read to Anuja when she is falling asleep–or it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that she is seven thousand miles away, and her bedtime is my noon. In any case, she doesn’t make it much past the first page, poor dear.
How I met Wen
I met one of our writers, Shi Huiwen, through reading poetry aloud. Wen lives in Hong Kong, but we both happened to attend an academic program at Cornell, about six hours north of New York City. I tried organizing a group to meet once a week to learn poems from memory. We would read aloud to each other, at first, then gradually recite from memory. Wen was one of the people who participated. I’m glad we’ve kept in touch.
Why Read Aloud?
Where did all of this come from? This interest in, nay, this need to, read aloud? It’s hard to say. Except that it seems almost self-evident that the test of a poem is its recitation, just as the test of anything would be its use. Then there was my dissertation advisor, who has Book 1 of Paradise Lost memorized. I’ve heard him recite it. It takes most of an hour. And there were the poetry-writing classes I took in college. We always recited our work before we received criticism on it. Like I said: the test of a tool is its use. And the use of a poem is to read aloud. To feel how it changes your breath and your voice as it pours out of you.
Maybe my affinity for reading aloud goes all the way back to childhood. I was lucky enough that my parents took a serious interest in reading aloud to me. But not just back to my own childhood. When my dad started giving me half-siblings and started reading to them, I took up reading to them, too. Being read to is one thing. But it’s a sad fact of our society that one is usually too young to remember being read to. Not enough adults persist at it past the age of five or so. I’m not one to judge why thy stop. But it ‘hits different,’ as my little brothers might say say, when you can hear it happening around you, and yet you’re old enough to remember it. I would go visit my dad and stepmom and one or the other would be reading one of those bouncy, rhythmic books to a kid who would be following along excitedly and sometimes finishing a line or anticipating a rhyme… or just giggling.
Run out of Things to Say? Read Aloud!
There are times when I run out of things to say. Given how introverted and, let’s be honest, depressive, I am, my friends are a surprisingly vivacious bunch. Athletes or adventurers or just chatterboxes, the lot of them. And usually I can keep up. With the chatting, at any rate. But there have been times… What am I to do when Anuja has a sore throat and I just don’t have much to say that night? It turns out I don’t have to say much of anything. I can leave the matter to Yentl or Gora or Miss Marple.
There is something so intimate about reading to another person that I wonder how anyone does it without blushing. I’m not sure why it’s so intimate, but I’m sure it is. It remains so when you’re reading to a single person who is the partner of your life, or to a friend over the phone, or to a crowded event-space at a university.
Read Aloud to Write Better
And, too, committing yourself to reading aloud changes you as a writer. You become more sensitive to how your own work sounds even as you are writing it. Your inner ear becomes more developed, because it has more examples and experiences to draw on. I am not sure I could have written any of the poems or essays I’ve written in the last few years if I had not been reading aloud to people–even to myself when I could find no other audience-member.
And occasionally when one or the other of us is feeling like it, Erika and I will read poetry aloud to each other. Nice, wholesome pieces like “For I will Consider my Cat Jeoffry” from Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno… or not-such-wholesome pieces like “The Ballad of Nash his Dildo.”
At a Poetry Reading
I even remember attending a book-signing at which were present four poets: C.K. Williams, Mark Strand (who had been my professor at Columbia), Robert Pinsky, and Sharon Olds. The occasion was the publication of Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud. Pinsky, the editor of the volume, read “Eros Turranos” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. He used his baritone voice to such dramatic effect that it felt like he was singing. If I close my eyes and open my inner ears, I can still hear his shifts in tone, his dramatic pauses, and the way the warmth of his voice enveloped us.
It was some years after that night before I had all forty-eight lines of that poem comfortably stored in my memory. Maybe it would make a better story if I lied and said I ran home that very night to memorize it. But the relationship of cause and effect are no weaker for being stretch out over time.
Read Aloud: A Thousand Breaths
So, was there a single event–or a single habitual event–that led to my devotion to reading aloud? Well, no. Lots of parents read to their kids and not all of those kids grow up to make recitation of poetry and short stories so definitive a part of their personality. In my case it was a series of smaller incidents. The inverse, you might say of death by a thousand cuts.
Life by a thousand breaths, perhaps?
Actually: “life by a thousand breaths” is as good an explanation as any as to why I like to read aloud. Try it and you’ll see how you notice and treasure every breath as it enters and leaves your body.
Read this Poem Aloud. Do It.
So. Here’s a poem. Read it aloud. See how it feels. Try it a few different ways: blank tone versus passionate. Steady rhythm versus rubato. To yourself versus to another person. Then make them read it to you. Let me know how it goes.
I picked you up on Huaihai Road five years ago,
Baby napping in her pram, giving me
roughly ten minutes to fall in love
with you, who I knew would be difficult to tame:
synthetic leather, geometric pattern,
hardened soles, terrible price –
but one can’t put a price on love, they say,
so I brought you back home.
The first year was a curse, the second year a struggle,
the third a compromise, the fourth slightly better,
Then I could barely feel you.
This morning I checked on you carefully:
Your skin peels off like yellow wallpaper
Your bruised nose and cracked heels
Remind me of grandma smiling
Awkwardly after multiple falls.
I put you in the coffin I brought you home with,
Bidding farewell to my fabulous shoe love.
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