Sample Workshop – Literary text as Score – Poetry


Sample Workshop: Literary text as Score: Poetry
Irit Sela

Book and Kitchen Bookshop, Notting Hill, London, April 26, 2016

Can we understand poetry?

Each poem is a world of its own, with its own language and rules.

Can we understand poetry? If by ‘understanding’ we mean, explaining something in different words, then – no, we cannot understand poetry, just as we can’t understand a human being.

So, How does “understanding” apply in poetry? We can definitely ‘get it’ – we can ‘get’ a poem, even with no previous learning or even having been exposed to it. Like beauty – we may not be able to explain it, but we can sense when it’s there – even in music completely foreign to us, we can sometimes tell when it is great music. Right?

So what kind of ‘knowing’ can there be where poetry is concerned? Perhaps the kind of knowing we have in loving? It occurs simultaneously in the head, heart, loins – the mental, emotional and physical. It’s a knowing of the kind we can’t explain, the kind that changes us, that makes us see and hear and feel and think thoughts we’d never had before, and notice things we’d paid no attention to. Right?

But we don’t often have ‘love at first sight’ with a poem. Sometimes love comes after spending some time together, getting acquainted with the poem, understanding and hearing better how it speaks and what it is trying to say.

I often compare poetry to other people’s love in the sense that both are easy to ridicule. Neither can be grasped or appreciated, unless we  are willing to invest, unless we are deeply involved in it.

We cannot know everything about a poem, what we can do is raise questions that a particular poem seems to invite or to inspire, or notice questions the poem raises, that will help to know it better. We won’t give answers. Relevant questions will tell us more about a poem (or person) than final answers [that are rarely convincing], and good poetry often means more than one thing and often, both something and its opposite at the same time.

Reading takes place physically, in the body. We want to translate the response we have to the body of the text, the body of the words, and to create a similar response in our audience. In order to translate we must resonate the essence, yet make choices without giving up important things in the poem. Reading out loud is translation, in the sense that we translate from one medium (visual) to another (audial), and in this process we get to know the poem better and have a better understanding of how it works, an understanding that is necessary in order to perform a good reading.

What kind of breathing does a poem suggest, or even demand? What kind of pulse does it have? What on the page tells us that? A reading that is alive and responds to the text can sound different each time, yet be deep and meaningful and resonate the poem.

Don’t open your mouth if you have nothing to say, if you don’t mean anything. In order to mean something you need to “grasp” or “get” the text, to understand how it works – this we can do. We try to figure out, what the writer gains by saying it in this particular way – what does the way of saying  imply regarding what is said – we cannot separate content from form.

Anything that has to do with language and especially with literary, poetic language – is not an exact science, so what we need is a combination of common sense and intuition for this method to serve us well.

Like any method, some exercised will be effective on certain poems more than on others, just as some people will prefer certain exercises offered over others.

I may say things which are obvious, please forgive me – I’d rather do that than not say something which may be relevant to reading poetry with a new ear. Because taking nothing for granted is basic to this approach to reading  poetry – everything in a poem is new (even when referring to older texts), a poem not only says something new with words, but does that of which it is talking – to the reader, through the reading.

At the basis of the method offered is dialogue – a dialogue existent in every literary text between a poetic speaker and his poetic addressee, a dialogue between writer and reader, also between legitimate, high language [‘langue’ according to linguist Ferdinand de Saussure] and spoken language [‘parole’].

Poetic Speaker and Poetic Addressee (both terms apply to what is written in the poem – not to be confused with the reader and his audience):

The poetic addressee is the inspirer, the instigator, the source and the cause of speech, of talking, of the speaking (speech) which is the poem. A poem is a written speech inspired in a poetic speaker by a poetic addressee.

The poetic addressee creates a need in the poetic speaker to do something to her/him through words – that is the speech-action.

Generally speaking, an addressee not only changes the way we express things, but makes us think thoughts that would not have been created were it not for the addressee.

In the oral rendition of the text we want to bring the literary dialogue to life  without distorting it or over-dramatizing it, out of tune with the tone the text itself seems to imply. We try to orally realize the active components, ingredients, active materials, matters in a poem.

At no stage during the preparation of a poem for reading aloud, do we ever do anything ‘technically’, without working with, listening for, always seeking the deepest, most interesting meaning – in the sounds, structures, shapes, speech-actions, poetic speaker’s attitude towards his/her own words [the tone of a poem] – all refer to meaning. Always.

Speech against the background of silence (like words on a blank page) is a kind of dialogue as well. Poetry – like music – makes use of this particular dialogue.

When words move from the ‘natural’ to the literary sphere, they change from being noise – to being music. Even if it’s slang and street music. Language is no longer basically practical noise for useful purposes, but has an additional dimension, as music, where the actual words and syntactic structure and flow not only bring across meaning but keep pointing at themselves as if saying ‘aren’t we beautiful’? Calling attention to themselves not only as carriers of communicative or practical missions but as sound-and-sense entities. Language moves from noise to music when it moves from daily life to poetry [Just as sound does when moving from ‘noise’ to music.]

Developing listening skills and attentiveness:


  1. Ask someone to read one of the short poems – everyone else: listen and write down what you hear. Everything you say is legitimate, nothing will be considered silly. Hear each person’s comments. Relate them to the reader’s intentions, his speech-actions, to the specificity of his imagination, to how much thought he himself has given to whatever he is talking about. Write down what you hear. Anything that has to do with the reading and with the text. What came across and how? What – if anything, didn’t? In other words, how much does he mean what he says when he says (reads) those written words?

If they don’t matter to the reader, why should the words matter to the listener?

Notice the connection between the speaker’s intention and the audience’s ability to perceive.

Two assumptions about a literary text:

  1. In every text someone is talking to someone.
  2. Everything that is laid down on the page is put there for a reason.

This means that whatever is on the page – in its’ precise place and shape – is there at basic level in order to allow the poetic speaker to do something (through words) to the poetic addressee.

Everything on the page in a poem is there for a reason – in other words, to do something, to act, to perform a particular action [through saying words]. That action is what I am looking for, in order to activate the specific kind of life, the tone of speaking, the particular “sound”, “voice”, that is a poem. At the most basic level, prior to ambiguities or irony, what is the text’s most basic action? – that which the poetic speaker is doing toward his addressee.

Don’t confuse the poetic speaker (who is written on the page) – with the writer (in real life); or the addressee (on the page) with the reader (in real life).

The aim, the objective, of the poetic speaker’s speech towards the poetic addressee, gives the narrative/narration its energy:

The flow of the sentence, the train of thought underlying the lines and stanzas, carries, creates and expresses the passion, the need – the speech-action of the poetic speaker to his addressee. The poetic ‘prosodics’ (rhymes,  etc.) give this passion the rhythm and music and shape – the dance and music.

The poetic speaker’s intent, vitality, towards the addressee, via the words he says – his speech-actions [not to be confused with sub-text] – are, at the most basic, beginning level, what focuses and characterizes the discourse, the tone of speech, the feel, the “voice”, the tone of a poem.

It may undergo many changes as we proceed stage by stage in preparing the text to be said aloud – by re-reading it layer-by-layer, focusing on a different aspect of it at each stage. At the end of the process we will choose the particular “tone” of the poem we want to convey through the reading, and seek ways of doing so.

Yet this very first stage of preparation is most crucial to the understanding of how a poem works, what makes it ‘tick’, what makes it alive.

We will not imitate the tone of our voice in each reading, rather – we will start with the intention [speech-action] that leads us to a particular “poetic sound” or “voice”, and let it sound however it may in each performance.

Please note: preparing a poem for reading is a process, building towards a reading stage by stage, much like preparing a musical concert. In a sample workshop we will only touch beginning stages – none of which should even attempt to be a good reading.

A possible definition of a poem: words that say: we’re important.

If they aren’t important to the reader they can’t be, to his audience.

They can’t be important to you if you don’t know what they’re saying.

Being fascinated by them is not enough, you may be hypnotized by their music or by a metaphor, but that won’t let a listener into the poem, unless you follow its’ train of thought as well, the particular way in which a poet chose to say something, using a metaphor or touching a certain subject.

The way of saying it is essential to the poetics and that is what we seek to find. Know what you are talking about when you read a poem aloud – even if some parts (as in life) are never absolutely clear. A good poem is like a person, you can never know it completely, but you can always find out new interesting things that are potentially active in it.

According to Simon Armitage, as well as the Russian formalists and many theoreticians of poetry, Poetry is always a form of dissent, an act of rebellion.

Even id we consider ancient, religious or devotional poetic texts, there is some hubris in improving what simple language can do by writing beautiful poetry – rebellion against natural language, in a way.

Everything human takes place and has meaning within an historical, geographic, cultural, economic and political context. Everything man-made is political, including language of course. Poets often rebel against language itself.

In order to be able hear better and see more, I suggest reading the poem with no previous knowledge or pre-conception of it, of what it’s about. Of what it is. We can always read about it much later, after we’ve allowed ourselves to be impressed by it. Like looking at a beautiful piece of sculpture for the first time, with no idea of what it is or if it is ‘worth’ anything in the art world of artistic-economic evaluation. Try to come to a poem innocent. You’ll see and hear more because you won’t come expecting particular things, which you either will or won’t see/hear. We are in danger of not being able to ‘hear’ what is actually being said on the page.

Exercise 1

To start from the basics:

  1. since we are seeking a convincing (i.e. natural-sounding) and vital sounding or vivacious way of saying an artificial (i.e. artistic) text, we need to find the energy, the flow of speech that is created in and dictated by a particular poem.

To look for the energy, the flow, we start with the sentence, the river of thought that runs and develops along the poem; we look for the train of thought, the motion of the sentence in a poem, marking wherever it takes any kind of turn in the flow, in order to try to understand what the poetic speaker is trying to do to his addressee by the words he says in each section of the flow of the sentence. Do this before deciding on a particular interpretation. We want to activate the text, to bring it alive – not to analyze it, but to find the kind of energy it generates by the way it is expressed.

  1. We tend to listen for what we hope to find, therefore missing a lot of major things that occur in a poem, that aren’t what we were either expecting or hoping for. In order not to jump to conclusions and maybe miss meanings that are not the first ones that come to mind, and taking into consideration the fact that there is no such thing as saying things without meaning anything – whenever anyone claims this he is lying to cover up a meaning he doesn’t want to reveal – on a scale of one to ten we try, at this stage, to find speech-actions, the least interpretative verbs, that will define the speech-action of the poetic speaker towards his addressee which are most meaningful, yet most ‘neutral’ – lacking in value judgement or emotional involvement. This actually adheres to the basic rules of language itself, that which there can be no argument about.

In the first exercise – if you try on a scale of one to ten to find speech-actions that are least interpretative, least judgmental or emotionally involved, most closely attached to definitions in language itself – speech-actions that are hard to argue agains, no matter which interpretation you may later prefer when reading a poem – if you can find this least interpretative yet really meaningful speech action from the poetic speaker towards his addressee – it will help you to notice new things in a poem, as well as to notice a meaningful substructure of the sentence that flows beneath the lines and stanzas, and find out what it contributes to the poetics of the poem.

  1. Do this out loud – every stage in this method should be performed orally and audibly and not just guessed or imagined – Now: notice what difference this makes in us – both as listeners and as readers who hear what has just emerged from our own mouths (and that is often surprising and sometimes more interesting and relevant than the speech-action we had set out to try in advance).


Whenever the least interpretative speech-action is comparing– a speech action that cannot be argued against, because it is prescribed by language itself, always make the mental effort of inventing a simile or metaphor and you as well as the poem will benefit from it. Try inventing a simile, an image or metaphor and you’ll sense what it is to use one in a poem.

  1. Remember: we work with a pencil because the process is dynamic, and has to do with what words do within a context of a poem, therefore the speech-actions we choose at first will often change as we go along, but we will always benefit from the step-by-step process. As we go along searching for the next curve or turn in the flow of the sentence and trying to define the poetic-speaker’s least interpretative speech-action towards his addressee, we try to find out what we know about the addressee, and what in the text and the language tells us about the kind of talking that is taking place – for example, is it public or private.
  1. Take nothing for granted when preparing a poem for reading. At this first stage every detail is significant and important and we must justify it’s importance in the saying of it, i.e. in the thinking (with both mind, heart and body) of it. As though we are reading it right after it was written, before it became famous and iconic. Nothing is central and nothing subordinate at this stage.

Only much later, when we are more intimately familiar with what goes on in a poem, will we begin to choose what to emphasize and how, and what to play down. No hierarchies at this stage, or we may miss very original choices of reading (i.e. of interpretation / of writing) the text has to offer, that aren’t the most obvious or traditional ones.

After marking every section in the flow of the sentence (the thought flow) and then writing down the speech-action that the poetic speaker is performing toward his addressee in each section – then performing it aloud, making changes and corrections in the actions according to the oral rendering, we may notice a pattern emerging. A syntactic pattern that is linked in its meaning to the words themselves, underlying the lines and stanzas, the visible poetic patterns.

Example: “Acquainted with the night” – Robert Frost (a kind of sonnet): speech-actions:

– sharing, admitting or disclosing – first stanza: each line is a sentence, fullstop. Separated from one another, as the poetic speaker is. Retrospective look, no other person in the world. Sense of strength in this choice of braving the world (‘furthest’) on his own. Next stanza has two sentences, three lines. Sadness is added to the strength, but not the poetic speaker’s – but humanity’s (though metonymically of course his own as well), then he encounters a first human person – a watchman (watching, like the poetic speaker is), and here suddenly there is no full-stop, and the speaker’s weakness when encountering another person is immediate, “unwilling to explain” – what? Unable to explain perhaps? Explain what? That is left to our imagination. Interesting that there should be no separation of sentences in this particular place, like a need to connect – so the line does separate but the sentence continues – as a longing for connection? Or regret at the inability to? Dropping his eyes, in shyness? Or guilt? Those same eyes that have seen all that… Cannot look into another person’s eyes. A simple person, a working man. The third stanza is a sentence that flows all the way into the last line but one at the end of the poem – a drastic change! Someone else might have put a fullstop after “stopped the sound of feet” to create a silence, but the silence is by now so dominant in the poem that the lack of grammatic, syntactic stop makes us hear the silence even more deeply, like holding our breath, and the far away cry is created for us within the poetic moment, letting us sense the distance (in every sense in this poem) – the something interrupted after the soundness of the strong beginning of the poem. Exactly at the centre of the sonnet! The interruption. And the sense of control at the beginning of the poem goes to pieces with the line structure – the order of the world he commands through his eyes watching (and writing life), is scattered along with the structure of the sonnet as it should be – five lines in the fourth and last stanza: This one doesn’t start with “I” anymore. It begins with “But” – what a strong word to shater perfection and control with! The need, the longing – through a sentence that doesn’t want to end, but has half-stops along the way, now with a cosmic perspective of loneliness, and acceptance – neither wrong nor right – and then the last line – a separate sentence – repeating the first yet sounding so different this time, for so much has happened between the start of this poem and the ending of it.

After a series of “I” we have a line starting with “when” – time gives perspective to the sense of control, then “but” and the luminary clock in the sky – finally the poet is like the watchman – to see and report what he sees of the human condition.

While we are seeking the most accurate speach-action for each part of the flow of the sentence, we notice many other things – like a child taking apart a clock to see how it works. Or looking up the many layers of a doll’s pettycoats…

Exercise 2

Now put aside everything we’ve done so far and instead of looking for the flow of the sentence in a poem, let us look at the single word. If we’ve been listening to melody, now we listen to the single note: the single word. The sovereign word, serving no one: not the line, nor the sentence, an idea, a context or the writer’s intention. Just listen to a word on its own, at it’s most potent potential in every sense – of meanings and sounds.

Exercise 2 gives body to words.

Do this exercise calmly when you’ve time and are relaxed enough to listen. Do it one word after the other throughout the entire poem. Don’t skip over words you think are obvious or uninteresting – you’ll miss surprises!

An image for this exercise may be useful:

Imagine yourself sitting by a tarn – a tiny clear silent lake. You pick up a   stone that can fill your palm – a single word – and release it high up into the smooth lake – saying it aloud in its’ full potential (without any context!), then watch the ripples and listen in silence and do nothing, let your mind wander and wonder about the word; when the ripples subside and you’re starting to get bored – breath and keep looking at the smooth water and listening to echoes of the word, and when you get really really bored and restless, breath again – sometimes the best ideas of how to say a word or what it can mean come at this stage! Mark down – every two lines – ideas for pauses, (v / vv / vvv = short, medium and long pause markations) or emphases (underline). You will later incorporate them into the speech-actions and strengthen these actions by them!

Another image for this same exercise:

You are at a cabaret poetry performance at the Dada centre in 1916. You pay for a ticket and enter the auditorium. The lights go down, a poet enters, the light goes on his face and he says one single word. Lights off. Applause. In other words: say the word with all the meanings it can have, to it’s fullest capacity, it is the entire world: the beginning, the middle and the end!

Use pauses and emphases you׳ve discovered in exercise 2 to express meaning, to strengthen the speech-action of the poetic speaker towards his addressee, also by trying to search for the right word to express what you want to say.

Later stages of preparing the text for reading will include, in addition to what the poetic speaker is saying (intending, through the speech-actions) to the poetic addressee, finding in the text itself what tells us about the poetic speaker’s attitude towards what he is saying, his own point of view – does that change the way it should be said? How? Try it. Is he being ironic? Cynical? Romantic? Humorous? In other words, what is the tone of speaking in the poem?

Lines versus sentences:

Then we see how the tension between lines and stanzas and between the flow of the sentence. What does the poet gain by cutting the line where he does? How does that affect what he’s saying?

Composition and development: each transition from one stanza to the next is a change in shift, a change (even if a seemingly silent one) which justifies the splitting into separate stanzas, the move from one stanza to the next has meaning.

How to translate the structure on the page to motion in time – speed, pauses, speech and silence etc.

Then comes the rhetorical stage: Always remember that reading someone a poem is saying something while sharing beauty. The question is, what is the live reader is saying to the audience by choosing to read a particular text.

The first is what I call the poetic speaker’s point of view, his attitude to whatever he says to his addressee (which is written in the text itself), the second is the reader’s point of view towards the text at the time and place of the actual reading.

Rememebr: we are playing with peoples’ minds when we read poetry to them, putting ideas, thoughts and feelings and drawing pictures – we need to see what we’re drawing before we say it, in order for that picture to be transmitted and its’ relevance grasped.

Then there’s the politics of the reading, the choice of style of reading (extrovert / introvert, etc.)