Reading Poetry Out Loud

Poetry is a unique literary form. Unlike novels and short stories, poetry is meant to be read out loud. And, unlike a play or a script, poetry is not supposed to be performed. Poetry lies between silent reading and the stage. Earlier in the blog, I talked about the difference between a poem on the page and a poem out loud, and I stand by the assessment that poetry needs to be read out loud, but furthermore, for poetry to be understood it must also be read out loud and played with.

While the words of a poem on a page don’t change, the intonation, inflection, pauses, breaths, pace, and reader can have a vast effect on the received meaning of a poem. Often enough, what people remember when it comes to a poem is the inflection of the speaker rather than the words and phrases of a poem. When a poem is read in a romantic way, it is received as a romantic poem and, likewise, when a poem is read in a sorrowful way it is received as a sorrowful poem. Take, for example, this poem by W.B. Yeats titled When You Are Old:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

The poem itself speaks often of love and can be easily interpreted as a love poem, but there are flecks of sorrow, mourning, and outright contempt within its lines as well. The poem starts off telling the “you” in the poem to reflect back on his or her (in this case, her, Maud Gonne – an Irish political activist) life when they are old and by the fire and remember how love fled and hid. Different speakers of the poem pick up and articulate different points of the poem, almost making it a new poem with each reading.

In this woman’s reading, she picks up on the romantic tones of the poem and focuses on love and longing. The delivery of her last line sounds especially hopefully, because she slows the line down, places an emphasis on every word, and ends with a dreamy inflection in her voice – as if it’s wonderful to have one’s love hidden among the stars. In one way, it could mean that one’s love is in the heavens and looking down, or dead but watchful of their lover still on earth. But the hidden in that line can also be read as a purposeful act on the part of the love in the stars – they could be seen, but they choose to hide and not be seen, which makes this poem less about love and more about regret.

In Colin Farrell’s reading, more sadness and somberness is inflected into the poem through his tone. Colin Farrell also adds pauses where there are no indicators (such as punctuation) for pauses. Because of Colin Farrell’s acting background, he plays with pauses a lot in his delivery of lines and he uses this skill in his reading of When You Are Old to draw attention to certain words and phrases (like “one man” and “sorrows”).

Tom O’Bedlam’s version, because of the quality of his voice, sounds sorrowful and leaves the listener with a sense of loss. Tom O’ Bedlam doesn’t vary his pacing outside of the last line or add extra pauses, but he still conveys the last line with a slight slowing of his pace of reading and a drop in his voice at the end more reflective of the “hidden face” being a sad thing rather than a romantic thing. This version also ignores some of the pauses W.B. Yeats includes with his punctuation, making this reading move much faster than the previous posted versions of the poem. This reading also places on emphasis on his phrases differently than Collin Farrell’s reading – for example, Farrell emphases the phrase “one man” with a stronger hit on the “m” in “man” while Tom O’ Bedlam hits the word “one” much stronger than “man.” While this might seem like a slight difference, the emphasis of “man” over “one” places gender ahead of the concept of soul mates, or the rarity of that specific man over others that have loved her.

Overall, these three readings highlight different aspects of the poem – the first emphasizes the romance of the poem, the second the sorrow of the poem, and the third the loss embedded within the poem. Not one is more right than the other, but instead all three highlight the different themes within the poem and delivery that meaning to the audience. Poetry is supposed to be read out loud and played with, and when it’s done right, the poem comes to life in many different ways.


  1. Pingback: How to Read Poetry with a Little Help from Billy Collins | The Poetics Project

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