Friday, September 14, 2018

Moonlight Musings

The Medium and the Message

You'll notice I don't say (as Marshall McLuhan did) that the medium IS the message.  Poetic messages are surely more subtle and multi-layered than that!

But perhaps I do mean something like it. I'm interested in how (and even whether) we write in different ways when we intend the results to be read in a paper book or journal, to be heard from a stage, or to be accessed in a blog.

One could differentiate further and examine presentations on YouTube compared with SoundCloud readings, or delve into whether the ebook experience is different again. But for now, let's look at just those first three categories.

Perhaps the question should rather be whether an individual poet writes differently for different media. It may be that some do, some don't. Or is it a more-or-less unconscious process which we're scarcely aware of?

(Oh, surely not the latter! A poet unconscious of every tiniest nuance? I don't think so! Yet ... if it was unconscious we wouldn't know, would we? We could be fooling ourselves; influenced, yet blithely unaware of it.)

Well, some of this is an old conversation. I expect we all know by now that any poem written for the page CAN be spoken effectively. That is, unless it depends a lot on visual arrangement, which of course some do. Similarly, any poem written to be performed can be read on a printed page; though some might have to depend on special typography to convey the full impact – capital letters, extra spaces....

Sound vs Sight

Sarah Temporal and Thomas Keily, whom I've featured here (check the links if you missed them) write for oral presentation, whether on stage or on video (both do both). They write very specifically for that medium. Such powerful poets! I can't imagine their stuff not working as well on the page – but I'll never know, as I encountered it spoken first.

Thom Woodruff (Thom the World Poet) has also been featured here in the past. I chose the poetry very carefully – and it was appreciated – as I have known some people who have only seen his work and never heard it to be dismissive of it. That surprised me at first. Again, I am used to hearing him recite it. I had to try and look at some of it with new eyes, getting out of my mind as best I could the memory of him chanting and almost singing the words, emphasising rhythms and cadences which are less obvious on the page. I could see how the poems might lose something that way.

Sight vs Sound

Then I think of another friend who only reads her work aloud at book launches, where it's pretty much obligatory. Otherwise she assumes people will be seeing it without sound. (Or only with the mental sound we all bring to words in our heads.) I know she tries her work aloud before regarding it as 'finished', as we are all advised to do. For any of us, that might turn out to be a little different from the sound in the head (and then it may depend whose head!). But essentially she is writing for the page. Her writing is  highly accessible, but one's enjoyment can be enhanced by lingering, even re-reading.

There are yet others who very much write for the page, and frequently present their work at live readings too. They want their poetry to impact people both ways, but it may include complex metaphors for savouring and pondering rather than grasping immediately.

Much may depend on the audience. Readers and listeners are not necessarily passive recipients; they can bring something to the event too. For instance, I expect that people who attend a lot of oral presentations must develop a better 'ear' for layers of meaning.

I think Mary Oliver, many people's favourite contemporary poet (mine for one) succeeds equally both ways – but perhaps that's rare.


And then there's the now huge tribe of bloggers, to which we all belong. These reflections began when I suddenly noticed a little thing of which I'd scarcely been conscious: that I was writing not only for accessibility but in the expectation that the poem would be glanced at quickly – that this is how people read online. Such an expectation is death to subtlety! It also tends to discourage length.

This may well come from the fact that I myself often have to choose between skimming other people's poems hurriedly or taking a long time to get around to reading them. 

We have wonderful poets blogging, and I love reading their work. Furthermore, reading poetry has always been one of my greatest pleasures. Yet I have to make that unwelcome choice as I don't have time to read and savour all the good poetry I'd like to. I suppose it's a good thing that I'm never going to run out of poetry to delight in. On the other hand, I hate to miss out on any of it!

I imagine other people have the same problem. Sometimes people's comments reveal that they haven't fully understood something I've written, or have actually misconstrued it. That could of course be a fault in my writing! But I occasionally get the impression that people are reading quickly because they have more to read, rather than taking time to grasp intentional complexities and ambiguities.

It's not their fault – how are they to know these things are there unless I flag them? There are people from whom we expect depths, so we allow for that; but perhaps my poems are usually so straightforward that there's no expectation of anything else? (Perhaps more copious process notes would handle it?) 

For myself, I find I'm better not reading other people's poems late at night. Things which seem obscure then can be perfectly transparent in the morning! The fault is not in the poems but the state of my brain.

So should we dumb down our work, or should we demand more of our readers? 

I don't want to dumb down – and I certainly don't notice anyone else doing so, nor would I wish that. I think, though, that I was starting to do it unconsciously. After all, I do want my poems to be understood! 

This makes me wonder if there will come a generation of blogging poets who keep it all very simple and immediate. Good poetry can be written that way; even great poetry can be written that way. It wouldn't necessarily be a disaster. It might be something that would just happen, spontaneously, over time. If so, it will probably become apparent to future generations rather than to ours.

But I hope it doesn't happen. I love listening to a piece that knocks my socks off right in the moment, but I also enjoy poems which make me think and reflect. I love diversity in poetry, and that we get in abundance from the blogging poets.

What's your take on it all?

Speaking of Thomas Keily, he sent a message about his feature last week, which I have included in the comments there (see link in this post, above). He also said some people have asked about sound recordings, so he has included in his remarks a link to some of the 'ecstatic erotica' and would welcome feedback.

Moon image © Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2015.
Other images in Public Domain.


  1. Your Musings are always my favourite, my friend. I rarely read my work aloud any more, other than at writers' group. I am not very good at it. It is interesting to me to have another of the writers read my poem, one who is very skilled at performance poetry. It sounds like a very different poem, and is easier to grasp, as he articulates so well. Performance makes a difference. I personally write the same way, no matter where the poem is intended to be seen. I dont seem to have another way. Having said that, bloggers are so supportive and encouraging, my poems likely would benefit from me working a little longer and harder on them. I know I have a forgiving audience and I have zero energy any more. When I have a lengthy post, I know people dont have time for all that reading, but I post it anyway, as a way of keeping it on record, as I turn each year's posts into a book. I figure people can skim, or click on by. I so agree with you, about time, energy and not being able to read and visit as much as we wish. I am barely keeping up online right now, as am not up to snuff. But what a wonderful forum this is for poets! Some of us might not otherwise be read at all. I am so grateful for it. Thanks for this thought-provoking feature, my friend.

    1. How interesting it must be to hear another poet read one's work! I often dislike the way actors read poetry – I think they get the emphases all wrong – but poets do understand how to read poetry.

  2. An example of performance poetry that is very powerful is the video on facebook yesterday of the Parkland Poets - kids from the Margery Stoneham Parkland high school who survived the shootings. Oh my goodness, their combined voices are powerful. They won a competition for their poem, which four of them performed together, demanding change.

  3. Rosemary said << I imagine other people have the same problem. Sometimes people's comments reveal that they haven't fully understood something I've written, or have actually misconstrued it. That could of course be a fault in my writing! But I occasionally get the impression that people are reading quickly because they have more to read, rather than taking time to grasp intentional complexities and ambiguities.

    It's not their fault – how are they to know these things are there unless I flag them? There are people from whom we expect depths, so we allow for that; but perhaps my poems are usually so straightforward that there's no expectation of anything else? (Perhaps more copious process notes would handle it?) >>

    Admittedly sometimes probably do not understand the intricacies of what you have written, Rosemary, but it is not for lack of trying. I never skim your poems and always look for meaning & do try to grasp the complexities. Admittedly, sometime I just DON"T. But I try to make a comment that shows that I had some understanding of your poem and something that makes sense. I think sometimes even if I do not totally grasp what the poet, such as yourself, was trying to say I take SOMETHING from it. And that is a good thing. As far as you thinking that perhaps your poems are generally lacking depth, far from it. Not at all. NOT at all.

    1. Your comments are always thoughtful, Mary, and much appreciated. Where I myself fall down a bit is in comments, I must admit. Sometimes, when time is short, I just leave a one-word comment, particularly if it is a word of unqualified praise, as it often is given the high calibre of our poets. The praise is always genuine, but not exactly informative! I am in awe of people who leave profound, detailed comments on others' work!

      And thank you very much for the kind reassurances here, about my poems! I'm very glad to know that.

  4. Thinking of depth in poetry, sometimes I think that some of the 'deepest' of poetry is written from the depths of the writer and very difficult for most readers to understand. I find this sometimes when reading bloggers' poetry. It is written as 'profound,' but I struggle to grasp at all the profundity. I do wonder if the writer realizes that this will be the case....or if the writer believes that they have written something that the reader will readily understand. Lately it seems I have been writing things that are fairly black and white. Probably I always have. I assume that my meanings are easy to grasp, for the most part, but perhaps everyone who writes would feel that way about their own poetry.

    1. I do find your poetry easy to grasp Mary, though not lacking profundity. I love and admire the way you manage such clarity. But yes, it is hard to assess one's own work, and I think we probably all do feel we've written something that can be understood, or why put it out there? If it turns out that people don't understand, that will show up pretty quickly, and one can amend the poem or write differently in future. I see so many bloggers' work improve noticeably over time, even when it was brilliant to begin with; and that is one of the great advantages of having a forum like this. We learn by doing, and also by finding out what does or doesn't evoke the response we were trying for.

  5. I have been remembering that, the few times I go to the bother of submitting something for a contest or a venue where it will be displayed or presented publicly, eg in town here,I do work much harder on it, doing a lot of revision. This has taught me I should do the same thing to my everyday poems, as there is room for improvement. LOL. This is an interesting discussion. I do come across some poems I really dont understand, or that seem too deep for me, unless there is a commentary by the poet. But I usually look for a phrase or perspective I like, in order to comment. The problem is not the poet's talent, it is my addled brain in these cases, lol.

    1. I sometimes revise a poem that has already been posted, if I happen to see something that could be improved. Sometimes one needs a gap of time. Revision is tricky, though – one can sometimes revise all the life and energy out of a poem, ending up with a perfectly crafted corpse!

    2. ah, the dilemma of revision! i like what you said about revision. first bite may be tastiest, and why add more salt or sugar to a dish? that's why i always dated my poems, in case i do a revision. i revise only when i think that that editing improves and make that poem a little more perfect. :)

    3. (Smile.) I always date mine too, for the same reason.

  6. This is a good day to encounter this, having recently encountered an argument that poetry is part of the "music" arts and always--even if read to oneself--written for performance. I've gradually picked up the habit of reading poetry aloud during the day (both as a way to review my own and to experience others') but I find that I mostly do this with printed poetry. Blog poetry I tend to read more quickly...perhaps believing it more akin to journalism, a hot take, as it were. The poems themselves often slow me down and bear multiple readings but I'm not as likely to read them the same way when I'm bound to my screen rather than roaming around with a book. I don't write for the medium (I'm not aware of doing so) but I do intend, eventually, for some of the poems to find their way into print, so perhaps that's the medium they're written towards. Print is my preference for reading, perhaps because it seems more finished.

    1. I think 'always' is a bit too much of a generalisation in these days when poetry comes in so many varieties – there is some purely visual poetry after all. That being said, I think there's a lot in the 'musicality' argument. Reading poetry aloud 'during the day ... roaming around' as you do – what exquisite pleasure! (Why have I not been doing likewise?)

      I've seldom written solely for performance, but there was a time when I slanted my stuff more that way than I do now, simply because I did a lot of performing back then and hardly ever do now. But I usually intend my poetry to work both ways.

      Blogging has changed things, though. Good point about the 'hot take'. I am basically posting drafts. I won't say first drafts, because I do a lot of revising quite quickly at the point of creation, but often not what I'd consider final. Many of them do turn out to be final, either because I never get back to them or that when I do they turn out to be working better than I thought.

      And you raise another interesting point – the different ways of reading we bring to paper or screen. That too might lead to a different 'culture' of poetry appreciation as time goes on.

  7. I am guilty of writing and posting almost immediately, though there is revision from page to blog, because it is in that transfer that I read aloud and first hear what I have written. And my poems work at readings when i read them myself. But when I go to publish--whether I submit them to someone else or make a calendar--I moan at how bad they are and how much revision they need, and how some are even disposable. That leads me to see the three venues as different, however, I never think about that when I write--when the must of the moment comes and I have to write. I'll tell you one thing that rarely happens to me with blogged poems however--there are some so-dense poems--brilliant on the page but very hard to follow aloud--that rarely occurs on the blogs, thank God. One of my mentors writes like that, and tries to teach me to take that kind of time and care. As a writer, I prefer the less dense, the clarity of the narrative over the figure, though nothing is more enjoyable to me than reading an unusual and evocative image. So, yes, I take my time with poets I love like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Rajani--but don't enjoy Oliver and Piercy any the less for being faster reads. It seems poets meet different needs and cannot be judged by only one ruler.

    1. I'm reminded of William Carlos Williams:

      I wanted to write a poem
      that you would understand.
      For what good is it to me
      if you can't understand it?
      But you got to try hard --

    2. Indeed! I could have put his entire poem here as the comment. He anticipated me.

  8. Such a thought provoking post Rosemary - am reading it at leisure this Sunday instead of being at the gym.

    Personally I usually prefer the poem to be unheard and rarely do I enjoy hearing the poet read the poem - e.g. Burton is best for Dylan Thomas; Alec Guiness instead of Eliot.
    With formal speech and drama training, I dislike sing song cadences etc - Beat poetry for example just gets on my nerves.

    I can honestly say that I am not that influenced by what the average blog reader has time to digest or comprehend - my poems can be obscure and misunderstood but I work hard at not making them erudite for its own sake. The length is something determined by the Muse not 'the quick liker passing on to the next post' kind of person.

    As a reader myself, I fully understand time issues and am guilty of not doing as much visiting as I would like - reciprocity is important though not as tit for tat - when I am late comer in the link up (happens rather often) I opt to read every other person and give them the time their writing deserves.
    p.s. I always appreciate the feedback you offer - it never feels hasty

    1. Yes, I have to admit Burton is wonderful reading Dylan Thomas – which must come from their shared Welshness among other things – and also I love Benedict Cumberbatch reading Keats. (I'll have to hunt up Guiness doing Eliot.) I agree with you about sing-song cadences too. I think it's good to have the music underlying the meaning, not eclipsing it.

      I don't find your poetry obscure, Laura, and I'm glad you don't find my comments hasty. Maybe we just 'get' each other's writing. That can happen too, I think: one may have more affinity with some poets than with others – not necessarily as regards content so much as expression.

  9. Very interesting, thought provoking post.I prefer poems to be read only with the mind's voice. I do not like lengthy poems, 'struggle to understand poems' or recited poems.I like poems which make you smile and laugh...comforting poems that put their arms about you , give you a kiss on the cheek and say it's ok love, I feel like that too. The whole point is connection.

    I have been to a couple of those poetry get togethers and did not like them at all.This is not surprising since I tend not to enjoy or agree with things everyone else does.If it were not for blogs I am sure my poems would not be read by anyone. I am too old to grafitti them on walls or have them tattooed to my body :) It pleases me enormously that kthers seem to like, relate and understand my work which is direct simple 'how's your dad' type poetry, in the main.Althoug I am capable of writing an esoteric number if the mood strikes.
    I am opposed to copious notes and explanations. It makes it easier to understand but then again why should it be made easy?There is nothing wrong with a bit of mystery.There are poems that I don't understand but if they have a nice flow feel and imagery I like them anyway.I am not a purist as far as poetry is concerned so I also like lots of interspersed visuals which I do understand is not favoured by intellectuals but it seems to be becoming more and more popular which I think is a good thing, making it more accesible. When I started as a blog poet hardly anyone used visual or video clips.
    Well I could go on and on but I will end by just saying I love poetry and I feel blessed to know blog poets who love it as much as I do.

    1. I very much enjoy your highly accessible (and often witty) poetry interspersed with visuals.

      And yes, 'a bit of mystery' definitely has its place in poetry!

  10. Apologies for the typos. I'm good at spelling. Don't get me started on American spelling... Grrrrrr:)

  11. Another interesting post, Rosemary. I, almost always, read poetry aloud(while writing it or reading the work of others) - though, I am not yet ready to read my poetry publicity, at a poetry reading. (I don't know what that says about my comfort level.) Usually, I read poetry - softly to myself - so most so, that those around me occasionally ask what I'm talking to myself about ~ lol ~ I do believe in revisions, but put a cap on them after a few days. Otherwise, I'd probably never stop. I seldom know, when I begin to write, whether my work will be long or short … or (for that matter) whether it will rhyme or be a prose poem. If it ends up being long, I post it anyway. Often people (who are commenting on a lot of poems) will make a brief comment that indicates they popped by, but didn't necessarily linger for the entire length. That's fine with me. I appreciate the courtesy. But I have noticed that there are others who visit my blog, regularly who (I suspect) are not part of the poetry community. I believe they came upon my blog, connected with it, and stop in every week (or so) to see what I've posted - be it long or short. It is interesting, I think, to look at the various approaches and guidelines (if any) that other poets have to posting on a poetry blog. Thanks, Rosemary!

    1. I for one will always read a poem all the way through and do my best to take it in, even if I leave only a one-word comment.

      Yes, I have noticed that some blogs get frequent appreciative comments from readers who are not part of our regular poetic communities. The rest of us would like to know how you attract them, please! Only half-joking ... but I'm grateful for any readers, no matter how they get there. And I agree that it's fascinating – indeed, illuminating – to see the variety of styles and approaches from different poets. I find being part of the blogging community an enriching experience altogether.

  12. A wonderfully interesting post!! Yes, though a hermit, my life is busy, I have more to do than I can say grace over. But I do try, to read the poems of others. Sometimes I fall behind, as I am now. But I will try to catch up. For me, I can never say exactly what I will get from a poem. Sometimes I have no idea what the poet is talking about, but maybe there is a a chosen word, or phrase, that catches my attention. And often when I don't really understand, I leave a short comment just to let the poet know I did come by, I read the words. Sometimes I think the poem so profound I am not qualitfied to comment. I always love to share my work, as each work is a miracle to me. (I have not always thought of myself as a poet and I often surprise myself. I do wonder sometimes what is this all about? But even though I don't have all the words to explain it to myself, I keep at it. I am giving myself more permission, if I am not inspired (inner breath) by the prompt, I just don't write. I need to be moved to action by the prompt.)

    1. I don't write to every prompt either. It rather depends when in the week they appear; some days I am simply too busy. Often I am moved to action more by prompts of form than subject: a very personal preference. But if we can't be personal in our own poetry ... lol.

  13. What a wonderful and thought-provoking conversation you have started here!

    I enjoyed reading different takes from this talented community of poets; so much to ponder and consider. But I especially like and I agree with your statement, "I expect we all know by now that any poem written for the page CAN be spoken effectively."

    I'm always aware of the medium I'm writing for, that is, the poem length, sound, visual, etc. depends on whether I'm going to post it on the blog, it's going to published by a journal or am I publishing it myself. But one thing remains, I write my poems to be read aloud. And I do that reading mostly myself around schools, and wherever I can inject poetry. I've found this to be an effective way (for me) to get students, and people in general, excited about and appreciative of poetry.

    Thanks Rosemary, love your musings/conversations about poetry; there's always so much to take in.

    1. Gosh, how exciting that you have this mission to 'inject' poetry into schools! What a brilliant thing to do.

      And how very interesting that you do specifically consider where you intend a piece to appear, when you're doing the writing. I especially love it that this is in a larger context of writing to be read aloud.


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