Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Lost Voice and Dylan Thomas whistling for his dog

So temperature down but voice has by-passed husky and sexy Lauren Bacall and lodged itself firmly in the ball-park area of horse and frog. This is not good; I am reading with poet friends in London on Friday night, I need to find my voice. How many times have I heard that at workshops and on Arvon Courses and wondered if I had one. I have roamed many a piece of literary countryside, dodging behind trees to avoid other writers and poets, near Arvon Centres looking for it or wondering whether the one I thought I had brought with me was working. No doubt the other mooching writers were doing the same thing; whistling for it like a lost dog. In Scotland at Moniack Mhor I began to think the midges had eaten it; along with my legs. You start to ask questions like, what is my voice, what shape and sound does it have, if I don’t have one how can I get one? If I have one, is it nicked from someone else, in which case do I have to give it back? I started to imagine my voice was something out there waiting to be discovered like Australia, radiation or black holes. It’s more than the sum of the parts; grammar, syntax, form, sound, rhythm, language, it’s the ghost in the machine and without one your machine barely wobbles along.

Finding the voice can be like the story of the Wooden Bridge at Queen’s College in Cambridge. It was designed to be self supporting by Newton but when taken apart to see how it worked by fellows at the college it couldn’t be put back together again without using bolts. This story is totally untrue, it was built after Newton died and they were not so stupid as to build something without nails, it may be Cambridge but they do have a modicum of common sense, at least in the area of bridge building. People love this story, it is bandied about to show that analyzing something destroys the ‘magic’, the genius. The death of a poem by critical analysis is a myth. I don’t think ‘the voice’ is a pale delicate wraith that haunts poems, I tend to think of it as something robust enough to be poked with a few sharp sticks. When and if I find my voice, I hope it is as fat as a butcher’s dog and when whistled home it is capable of knocking anyone off their feet and snapping a few sharp sticks with its strong slavering jaws.
There is, of course, something about the physical voice and its effect on the poem. It has been useful to hear someone else read my poems; it allows me to step back and admire my own genius or blush crimson and hide behind the curtain. When I have heard actors read my poems it was like hearing something different, not better or worse, just different. ‘What’s my motivation here?’ is the classic actorly cliché. 'What is it trying to say sub textually' they need to know; actors tend to look for an angle if not a handle on a poem. Once the motivation, the ‘why’ is grasped then the ‘how’ of reading will follow suit, they have techniques for delivery. Of course poets don’t have dramatic techniques on the whole, they just read the words they have written, of course they know its sub textual nuances its rhythms, rhymes, the stage directions of the punctuation. Or do they? Some poets can read their own work so badly you start to wonder if they actually wrote them. This is nothing to do with nerves or shyness in public, I have heard the most confident of poets massacre their own work. Then I have to ask myself, perhaps they haven’t delivered their poem badly perhaps they are simply refusing to read it how I would want it read? I am a control freak after all.
Some poets when heard on records sound dreadful, T S Eliot sounds as if he is reading a menu on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Dylan Thomas can sound as if he’s about to launch into a Victorian melodrama about a moustache twirling landlord and a twitching virgin. Give me Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood anytime, and even he can be a tad over the top. However, I came across Dylan’s own introduction to the reading of his own poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London in the Poetry Archives.
The poem itself is still rather declamatory and you can hear how hard he has worked to drive every trace of a Welsh accent from his voice. His introduction interestingly does address the tendency of the poet reading their own work to milk it for nuance and lean on syntax to ensure the audience ‘get it’. However, listen to his other recorded reading ‘In my Craft or Sullen Art’, toned down, his physical voice reined in seems better to me ; less Donald Wolfitt or a scene from ‘The Dresser’. However the man definitely had a voice; he was born with it, wrestled demons for it and maybe wandered the woods now and then whistling for it to come home.

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