Listening to poetry is a very different experience to reading it. But is this just another indulgence for people who have spare time on their hands, or can it serve a deeper purpose?
Geraldine Gray, a librarian at Bromley House Library, an independent library in the centre of Nottingham, explains the benefits of poetry readings.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m an assistant librarian. I’ve worked in all sorts of different libraries all my life from the age of 21. In public libraries, special libraries, academic libraries and hospital libraries. You name it, I’ve worked in them.
When I was a very small child my mother decided I should go to elocution lessons to try and rid me of my Nottingham accent. I did them for seven years and absolutely hated them. I finally finished going to them at the age of 13 or 14, although by that time I had done several exams.
It may not have got rid of the Nottingham accent, but it did give me confidence speaking in interviews, to groups of people, in fact all forms of speaking aloud. It was particularly useful when it came to reciting poetry, which is how the recital of poetry came into Bromley House.
How did you start your poetry reading group?
A few years ago I was talking to members about how we just like poetry and we like listening to poetry being read, without it being dissected or ripped apart, or critiqued. I said that I like reading poetry aloud and that I like performance poetry, although it doesn’t have to be performance poetry. So I began a ‘Poetry Please’ group.
It’s been very popular and gave me the chance to stand up and read aloud in front of a group of people. People read us poems that they’ve written, poems that they’ve read.
The group has some members who are normally very quiet and reserved when they come in. But within that group they have the opportunity to give opinions, read aloud and talk with people they might not normally meet. As a staff member of the library I’ve got to know a really nice group of people and they’ve made some contacts. When they come into the library every day they’re still as quiet, but every so often we get to see a totally different person.
What do you think reading a poem out loud brings to it?
It brings extra understanding. I have to admit I tend to choose poems that are immediate, that I get straight away. If it’s a complex poem it’s a little difficult, but I think even with a complex poem, having it read aloud. The person is going to give their interpretation of it by their tone of voice, by their timbre, expression and even by explaining what the poem is about at the beginning. I think you get a different interpretation to hear it in a different voice.
Why do you think you like to hear poetry read aloud?
My love of poetry stemmed from when I was at university. We were lucky enough to have Roger McGough as the poet in residence at Loughborough University which was then full of male engineers. I think someone was very inspired in getting him in there. So that was my love of poetry and performance poetry. I also got involved with the Beeston poetry sessions in the 1990’s but had to give this up when I had my son.
Hearing poets perform their own work was a revelation to me, because when I studied poetry at A-Level I hated it. All you were asked to do, and this happened at university to a certain extent was read and dissect a poem and say why the poem was great or not great. If all the classes at A-level had been about standing up to read a poem, what a difference it would have made, but it was poets reading their poetry aloud that brought poetry alive to me.
How do you go about running a session of reading poetry aloud?
All we did for the first session was advertise it in our newsletter saying that if anyone would be interested in a ‘Poetry Please’ at Bromley House. We asked people to bring their favourite poems along and invited them to recite them in front of the group.
If they weren’t confident enough to read their favourites they were asked to come along and listen, or bring poems that they liked that other people would be willing to read out to them.
We had about six or seven people in that first session and there were a few people who came along to listen to other people’s poems. We also had people who had written poems for us to listen to. Although everyone would like it to be a monthly meeting, I thought that might be too much, so we meet perhaps every six to eight weeks.
The group has grown as time has gone on and we now have theme for each meeting that members suggest every time. We only stick very loosely to that theme and I have noticed that some of the people who came along initially, just to listen to the poetry are now confident enough to bring a poem and actually read it.
There are members, like me, who would be confident to read for the whole meeting. There are also members who tell us to stop them because they could quite easily read work out for the hour. But we take it in turn so everyone has a choice.
If you moderate this kind of group it helps if you can read body language, because it tells you when someone has quite a few poems ready and itching to read and when someone just has one poem. So you have to make sure that people don’t dominate the session. This means the session has a good balance.
It’s always nice to have one of the good readers finish the session, so I always keep an eye on this.
There is also always someone who doesn’t stick to the theme, or are worried they’ve not quite caught the theme, which is great as the theme is there just as a guideline. We don’t stick to straight themes and it’s what people want to make it really. It’s grown in popularity and we’ve been going for about two years now, so we now have an evening session as well. This is because many of our members work and can’t manage to come to a session during the day. I would like to do more evening ones, but it’s all to do with people’s time.
We had a special one for World War One. I was worried about this one because we’ve heard such a lot about World War One for obvious reasons. So I did think that people might be overloaded with sad material. But the whole experience was very moving and people had found very different poems that I hadn’t heard before as well as poems by the usual poets, but different to their usual work. Someone came along with Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and gave us some background on him that explained his work. I’m not student of English Literature, but that was fascinating and incredibly moving in a different way. One of the quieter members of the group said he’d found it very moving in an enjoyable way and thanked us for putting it on. So that’s really good. This has made me realised you can never assume how people are going to find things.
Do you have an idea of what poems are going to be read before you get there?
We have no idea. One of our members is a very skilled orator and is part of a trio who do poetry readings at festivals. You can tell, because she has the most wonderful speaking voice. We also have several teachers of literature who can deliver words really well.
Normally I go to our poetry section and pick a book and look through the index. Our next theme is ‘fin, fur and feather’. At the moment I’m reading the book of memoires that Wendy Cope has just published, which is absolutely fascinating. I really like Wendy Cope and heard her at Beeston in the 1980s and it’s a brilliant read. It’s a collection of her life story and her writings and lots of critiques of poets. I got my copy of Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis off my bookshelf at home. There is a wonderful poem in there that’s a take on T.S. Elliot writing ‘The Daffodils’. So I’m reading that one because there’s mention of furry animals in that one. I do follow Twitter (@pigepie) a lot and I follow Ian McMillan (@IMcMillan). He tweeted a rather wonderful poem by Gillian Clarke called ‘In January’ which features a dog and some buzzards, so those are my two poems. I’m not normally that erudite in my choice.
Members of the group do seem to take a lot of time and pride in what their choices to the extent it does make me feel as if I’ve not done my homework sometimes. We are moving more towards talking a bit about the poems and our choices, particularly if the poems have really gripped the group and we haven’t heard them at all.
In the World War One session we did have a couple of Kipling poems, which were really good, that I hadn’t heard before. The last session we did we had on ‘winter parties’. Jacqueline Gabbitas came along from Writing East Midlands and read a couple of her poems from her recent anthology Small Grass. They needed a little bit of explanation because if you hadn’t read her book. She led us in quite an interesting discussion about the poems, which we normally wouldn’t do because we don’t have somebody like Jacqueline who is a professional author.
Now we’re getting a bit of confidence, we want to have more of these explanations. But we don’t want to go down the role of critiquing because that’s getting too close to the dreaded A-level classes. The sessions are basically all about building confidence.
This confidence building factor is very useful.
Yes, this is where people are doing a lot of work with this type of thing.
There is a charity where people are approaching literature by just reading it aloud. It’s big in the North West and South.
This will eventually be a charity we would like to work with because they work from young people in schools to women’s group and ex-offenders to let them know the written word isn’t scary.
Initially, as a library, we want to be able to say to groups that we have rooms here and that they can have them for nothing for say and afternoon, so that they can come in and hold their group in a different space. Then we would like to get some of our members involved as people who would come in and read their favourite passages.
We have Cathy Hammond as a member and who has been one of the volunteers who worked on the cataloguing project and worked in adult literacy for many years. She and her colleagues now run a group voluntarily. Cathy was trying for many months to bring her group into the library, but they were so overwhelmed by books and words they couldn’t access them. So she felt that Bromley House would be too intimidating for them. This is why when we had the World War One exhibition, they were doing a lot of work with World War One diaries it was an opportunity to bring a small group in. They had a fantastic time looking round the library.
It’s these sorts of groups we are hoping to attract into the library for reading aloud sessions.
There is a lot of criticism of young people, because they don’t make eye contact, because they don’t know how to speak to people. Even if your written skills aren’t brilliant then if you have the confidence to talk to people one to one or hold your own in an interview. If this confidence is built at school so you can learn how to report after a group working session to your colleagues then that can be build up to report to a larger team of people. This means that when a young person goes for their job interview, even if you’re just a practical person, you are able to speak to your interviewers and also give instructions to someone. So reading aloud is something that really needs to be on the curriculum.
This is why I’ve always be grateful to my mother for sending me to elocution lessons and the one thing I agree with Michael Gove about. Learning something off by heart has its place.