The impact of hearing myself reciting my poems

I have emotions mixed with ideas or random thoughts, so I write them down. Usually these come out in verse because apparently that’s how that works in my brain. Lucky, that: it’s a blessing to be able to turn raw feelings into something beautiful. (Lana Del Rey’s “Beautiful” comes to mind.)

But as a side effect of this process of turning ugliness into beauty, a particular emotion is rendered permanent but also remote. An intangible expression becomes an object in its own right, a concrete thing, whose existence exists beyond me, the one who had the thought and felt the emotion. In the process it becomes an extension both of myself outward and of the emotion beyond its temporal bounds, but it also becomes something separate from me.

When I read any of my poems that emotion or idea is re-placed within me, as something almost external except for my memory of the production context, even as I also experience that particular set of emotions again.

On the other hand, reciting a poem drives all thought from my mind. I get distracted entirely by the attempt to convey the emotions of the words and accurately represent their sense. Reciting a poem, however, also involves the anxious bliss of losing myself on stage. If Britney’s right and “There’s only two kinds of people in the world / the ones who entertain and the ones who observe,” then I’m firmly among the former. Songs like Gaga’s “Applause” fill me with a longing that confounds my view of myself. I am easily sucked into a Performance Mode. Even before I’ve finished writing a poem I already see glimpses of a stage, a darkened room, the boundaries of a spotlight’s beam, and I hear myself saying the words as I write them, as if they come from a disembodied voice, as if the spotlight creates an illusion of visible invisibility.

In any event, my poems recall an emotion to mind as a memory: it is distanced by the work of remembrance. Once the emotion is written down, I’m no longer subject to its grip in the same way. Instead it becomes the subject of my whims and my particularly intense scrutiny. My critical gaze is unchecked; it has never known any bounds. The results are often constructive, but the process is thoroughly destructive, even hostile. An impossible number of pages have bled with the red ink of my pens, unpublished essays and published works alike. Provided I’ve had a sharpie with the proper width at hand, I’ve edited several public signs. I edit not only for grammar but for sense, which is why whenever I’m given a form to fill out, I’m unable to resist editing it on logical grounds. (‘Why would you ask me this when you asked me that?’ ‘I think you mean to ask…’ etc.) I am a gleefully intense editor. Inside my head, I’m much less adept at editing myself or my thoughts, falling into the rush of things before I’ve processed the motion. On paper, they are at my mercy.

I’m not really affected by my poems. They’ve lost their hold over me. Or so I’d thought, at least, until a few weeks ago when I heard recordings of myself reciting my poems for the first time.

I have no immunity to those recordings, to the bare scratch of emotion in the voice reading a given poem to me, even though they’re words I know as well as I know the skin of my hands, and even though I anticipate the next words in my mind before I hear them in the voice I know as my own. For example, hearing myself recite a romantic diptych (“His eyes, amber, grey, and green/in the light of the sun” and “Of Zeus and Ganymede”) was unsettling, almost unnerving. Emotions long past suddenly resurfaced, the bittersweetness of that relationship, the mutual love and concern, the turbulence, the made-for-each-other-ness and the ways we most certainly were not made for each other. I’m not going to be putting those recordings out and I don’t think I’d like to recite them very often if ever, but I admire them nonetheless as works of a certain art.

Another (“What’s left to say”) actually made me break down sobbing for a good few minutes after I heard it. There’s a surplus of accumulating pressure inside over the state of the planet, more than I’ve felt even at the most intense moments of my life, and some of it came rushing out as I heard myself reading this poem. Cathectic energy builds up within us like pressure builds along a fault-line, and for every context of pressurization, there is a form of release that comes without fail. So some of that release was cathectic in nature, even if it wasn’t particularly cathartic.

I used to be fairly certain that my poems were visual works, like any other written work, like any of the many essays I’ve had to write over the last 25ish years. Except a few years back a fellow graduate student commented that my three short seminar papers (papers we each had to take turns writing and then reading out loud during that week’s meeting) weren’t intelligible to him until he heard me read it. To be fair I write like Pierre Bourdieu, so you cannot skim my papers; they require a reader’s complete engagement. But still, that stuck with me, one of many other social puzzles that cycle through an on-deck space for wait-and-see questions.

Now that I’ve heard myself reciting a handful of my poems, I’m wondering whether there is any written component to these works at all. Perhaps they are actually audio works that I’ve set to paper as a matter of necessity, a script rather than the work itself. One set of poems is definitely partially visual, though I haven’t managed a way to create the scenes to go along with it: there are five distinct but interconnected images that have to flow into one another and merge all together into a larger synoptic image. But aside from that set of poems, I generally assumed any multisensorial effects came from the words, but the words themselves were strictly written in nature, not spoken or sung: expressions through imagery rather than images as expression.

Yet when I hear myself recite the words of a poem, the power they hold over me is enormous. I’m gripped by them in a way I never had been when I was just reading or reciting them. So from now on, anytime I put a poem up on this site, I’ll also put up a recording of me reading it. Whether these words end up expressed in a printed medium, whether they were meant to be received that way, the audio element turns out to be a powerful addition to the encounter.

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