May 7, 2018

Why do poets read like that?


Poet Natasha Trethewey is identified as an exemplar of poet voice

When I invoke “poet voice,” I’m pretty sure you know what I mean. It’s a soft and restrained reading style that’s always moving toward ending on a down note. Others have called it “monotonous incantation.” Like pornography, it’s hard to define but easy to recognize.

English professor Marit J. MacArthur has sought to pin down a few criteria that might compose a definition of this famously affected reading style. In a 2016 paper, she argued that poet voice, at its core, is a mix between the rhetorical mode one would find in a religious service, and the mostly-emotion-free mode preferred in academia. But even that doesn’t get us a definition.

So MacArthur recruited fellow researchers Georgia Zellou and Lee M. Miller to draw up a more sophisticated experiment. Of their methodology, Cara Giaimo reports for Atlas Obscura:

For the study, the researchers chose 100 different poets—half born before 1960, and half born after—aiming for “a variety of aesthetic educational backgrounds, as well as some ethnic, racial, class, and sexual diversity,” as they write. They found audio and video clips of these poets reading their own poems by scouring websites like PennSound and Then they took the first 60 seconds of these recordings, first chopping off any introductory chit-chat, as most poets use their “normal” voices for that.

[ . . . ]

The researchers then fed each of these recordings into a series of algorithms that measured various aspects of pitch and timing. They focused specifically on 12 attributes, ranging from simple metrics, such as reading speed and average pause length, to more complicated ones, including pitch acceleration (“how rapidly the changes in pitch change … which we perceive as the lilt of a voice,” the researchers explain) and “rhythmic complexity of phrases,” which measures how consistently a speaker draws out, or doesn’t draw out, groups of words.

Of course, every experiment needs a control group, and in this case recordings of native Ohioans talking about everyday things (see Mom, I do have a useful skill set) were employed as a standard against which to measure poet voice.

Compared to Joe Sixpack, poets spoke more slowly, within a narrower range of pitches, and with much longer pauses.

So there’s the formula, right? All we have to do is ape it and we can all make a splash on the reading scene. Well, that’s kind of the problem.

One conclusion you could draw from this survey is that a great diversity of poets force their reading style to match the conventions of poet voice. Which is a bit of a heartbreaker, as my gut (and my readerly interest) tells me that different poets could maybe benefit from reading… differently.

Giaimo’s piece ends on a similar down note:

In a response to the study, literature professor Howard Rambsy II wrote that these findings suggest that “perhaps … low expressiveness in poetry readings is one of the requirements of being a major award-winning black woman poet.” MacArthur agrees: “[The results suggest that] there’s something about assimilation to the mainstream, or just success in the mainstream, that encourages a less expressive style,” she says. “That to me was kind of startling. I think there’s something there to investigate, and I will.”

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.