On Reading a Poem

Edward Hirsch is one of my favorite author/poets writing about poetry.  His book, How To Read A Poem, is a poetic bible to me.

When I first began to recite my poetry in front of an audience, I hadn’t read Hirsch’s book.  It took every ounce of courage for me to stand in front of a group of strangers and become vulnerable.  My knees wobbled, my voice shook, my heart pounded.  Yet, I knew that it was time to step up and go public with my writing.

Does it ever get easier?  Although I’ve given writing workshops and stood before an audience on numerous occasions, I experience anticipatory anxiety–that pre-presentation self-doubt. By this point, I have become very familiar with my material whether I’m preparing to facilitate a writing workshop or read a few poems at the local art gallery. I have recorded, rehearsed and partially memorized what I plan to read. Typically, this anxiety evaporates as I read and connect with my audience.

Once, as I was practicing for a performance with a group of three other poets, a fellow poet stood in the back of the room.  As I recited the first few lines, he stopped me saying “I’m not getting this, Christine.”  I’d begin again and he stopped me again, at least three more times!  The poem I was reading, Woman By The Sea is a powerful poem about a woman and safety.  When he stopped me the fourth time, suddenly, I felt my whole being descend into my belly, a growing warmth there, and I recited the poem from this deeply grounded powerful place.  Afterwards, he said “I get it.”  And I could see how his criticism helped me to come from my place of certainty.  This was my experience. It was real. I chose to share it with others.

Edward Hirsch says, and I love this quote, “When I recite a poem I reinhabit it.  I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body…I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience.”

This quote has helped me to be fully present with a poem when reciting. Sometimes, while reciting, I have a tendency to rush through the poem on a single breath.  “Don’t forget to breathe,” is another good reminder when reading before an audience.  I really do want to be heard and understood.  I am, after all, sharing something that is intimately important to me.  I really do want the audience to “get it”.

In this youtube below, Edward Hirsch reminds me that the reader of my poem is a necessary component and in that sense, though I’ve said that writing is a solo task, a poem is like an outstretched hand desiring to make a connection.

Woman by the Sea
© by Christine O’Brien

Rising with the sun
she walks along the cliffs by the sea

Iceplant, Scotch Broom, Sweet Alyssum
shimmering puddles of color

A wind-warped tree
points an unwary stranger over the edge

Her pup is her only companion
He frolics ahead
turning back to get a nod

The ocean pumps
a strong heartbeat
smothering all other sounds

She runs, screams, whoops, beats her chest
Her pup looks back
with a puzzled tilt of his black and white head

She laughs and chases him
The black hawk overhead
calls and glides with her

She is letting her hair grow long
just so the ocean wind can whip it across her face
into her mouth
so she can sputter
and spit it out

She hikes to the place were
she dares hike no further
unless she were a rock climber

She daydreams of ripping off her clothes
running down to the beach far below
into the icy water

Sometimes she sees herself
wearing a sheer Indian gauze dress
walking by the water’s edge
a silhouette against the setting sun

That morning
when she gets home
her husband tells her
he read an article

Just last week
this woman
was raped
up where
likes to hike

That afternoon
he comes home
with a pocket-size mace sprayer
for her to carry
She puts it in her sock drawer
afraid it will attract trouble

She still walks her path by the sea
looking furtively over her shoulder
keeping her dog and spirit
reined in

She doesn’t whoop
fearing it might
attract someone dangerous

No more daydreams
A woman
by the sea
is vulnerable

Today’s Prompt:

  • Please reread my poem (above) slowly. Any poem deserves at least two readings.
  • Record yourself reciting something.  Your own or a favorite poem.  Or, a piece of prose that you’ve written.  Listen to the recording.  Have you “inhabited” what you are reading? Are you fully present with the words on the page?  Have you taken them into your body?  Is there someone who can be an audience for you as you recite?  Do you dare?  Do dare.


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