Tuesday 3 August 2010

Why are actors so bad at reading poetry aloud?

Because they blimmin well are bad at it: all of 'em.

(Exempli gratia, Poetry Please on BBC radio. Or RSC actors doing Shakespeare. Or, for that matter, pretty much every single commercial or public recording of poetry that has not been spoken by the poet.) 

Poetry (real poetry) is rhythmical - the rhythm is not an option, but of the essence.

Deconstructing poetry into prose, speaking it according to units of meaning, pulling it apart like a 'torch singer' or crooner wringing every drop of 'emotion' from a song lyric - these are simply unacceptable ways of behaving in civilized society.

For goodness sake, it isn't difficult! After all, proper poetry is written to be easy to remember and to speak!


Actors even manage to de-emphasize the rhythm and rhyme of light verse - where perfect rhythmicity and exact rhyme are 95 percent of the effect.

In the recent Grinch movie Anthony Hopkins somehow recited Dr Seuss's as if it wasn't rhythmical or rhyming.

Dr Seuss! That takes some doing - but he did it.

Anthony Hopkins version of Winnie the Pooh

The more it (pauses, takes a breath) 

(questioningly..) snows...tiddley (typically resonant Welsh baritone) pom
(Rapidly) The more it goes-tiddley-pom the more it goes-tiddley-pom on snowing and 
(loudly) Nobody
(quietly, sadly) Knows-tiddley-pom,
(Long pause)
How (emphatically) *cold* (emphatically) *my* toes-tiddley-pom
(Crisply, over-enunciated) How cold my toes tiddley-pom are growing 
(with typically Welsh up-lifted note on 'ing').


dearieme said...

The place to hear good amateur reciting of poetry is at Burns Suppers.

Bill said...

Actors are bad at reading poetry for the same reason that architects are bad at architecture, hubris. Instead of submitting themselves to their craft, they are insisting on calling attention to themselves by being an auteur in their own right.

Anonymous said...

Bill is right. You see the same sort of thing in the way famous singers invariably mangle pop standards, Christmas carols, national anthems, etc., insisting on showing off and doing cartwheels around the melody instead of just singing the song as it was written to be sung.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill and wmjas - I think the problem is even worse, in the sense that I don't think that even excellent, honest actors can read poetry (or, hardly ever).

I have always believed that the ability to 'appreciate' poetry is actually extremely uncommon - and even in those who have it, it comes and goes.

(Most literary critics, even the most famous, have no ear for poetry IMHO - for example FR Leavis, Van Wyck Brooks and CS Lewis - very important critics/ scholars so different in every other way, are united in their inability to appreciate lyric poetry.)

And even in those who have it, it is typically extremely limited by things such as era, dialect, style and (of course) subject matter.

But most professional actors - even when not showing off - read poetry as if it were prose. I expect this is due to poor training, and that the poor training is due to a break in the tradition.

For example, when I have been to Shakespeare plays done by the Royal Shakespeare Company the actors roughly-never speak the blank verse (if the play is in verse) as rhythmic verse - they read it as prose, with accents placed according to meaning.

So the whole of a play like Hamlet sounds like prose in a modern performance, even though it contains both prose and verse.

This is the fault of the directors (who are of course tin-eared pseuds, as a necessary qualification) - because a decent actor can at least speak the lines as they are instructed.

And this applies to pretty much all poetry read-out by professionals.

The BBC has a Radio 4 programme called Poetry Please which should be re-named Poetry Per-leez on the grounds that there is no poetry in it (on the rare occasion that they do happen, by accident, to include a real poem, it is invariably spoken as if it were prose).