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Analysis Breaks Down the Annoying “Poet Voice”

It’s not just you; poets also read their works aloud with long pauses, weird cadences and almost no emotion

Robert Bly, one of the poets who scored in the top ten for dynamism. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Anyone who has been to a poetry reading in the last half-century—mind you, not a poetry slam, but an honest-goodness literary reading—has likely encountered the lilting, emotionless, interrupted and often down-slurring cadence that has come to be known as “Poet Voice.” No matter how impassioned, angry, funny or Whitmanesque a poem sounds on the page or in a reader’s head, when it is read aloud many authors or their surrogates use the low-energy style that is a comfort to some and causes others to rage, rage against the dying of the poem.

Now, reports Cara Giaimo at Atlas Obscura, a recent study has looked at Poet Voice, analyzing the performances of 100 poets to figure out what defines this unique cultural verbal tic. Their research appears in The Journal of Cultural Analytics.

Lead author Marit J. MacArthur of the University of California, Bakersfield, tells Giaimo that as a literature prof she was subjected to plenty of Poet Voice and wanted to find out where the annoying intonation came from. “I just felt like there was a style of poetry reading that I was hearing a lot that sounded highly conventional and stylized,” she says. “I became curious about what exactly it was, and why so many people were doing it … I wanted to define it more empirically.”

That led to a 2016 article in which she looked at the possible origins of the “vocal cliché,” finding that it had elements of religious ritual and also inherited some of academia’s abhorrence for the theatrical.

In the new study, she wanted to describe what, exactly, makes up the voice. Choosing sound clips of 50 poets born before 1960 and 50 born after that date, MacArthur and her co-authors ran 60- second clips of well-known poets reading their works through algorithms that looked for 12 traits, including reading speed, length of pauses, rhythmic complexity and pitch changes. They also did the same for a control group of people from Ohio just talking normally about sports, the weather and traffic.

Compared to the control group, two main attributes of Poet Voice jumped out. First, the poets spoke very slowly and kept their voice in a narrow pitch range, meaning they didn’t display much emotion. Second, 33 percent of the poets engaged in long pauses, up to 2 seconds, which normal talkers rarely if ever used.

In many ways, Poet Voice is a very unnatural voice. “In a more natural conversational intonation pattern, you vary your pitch for emphasis depending on how you feel about something,” MacArthur tells Giaimo. “In this style of poetry reading, those idiosyncrasies … get subordinated to this repetitive cadence. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, you just say it in the same way.”

There were some differences in the deliveries. Seven of the ten poets who scored the highest for “dynamism” were African-American female poets born before 1960, many of whom were part of the Black Arts movement, which was informed by African-American vernacular speech, jazz, Blues, church sermons and other inspriations from black culture. But five of the poets with the worst dynamism ratings are also African-American females, most of whom were born after 1960. It’s hard to say why the stark shift, but Howard Rambsy II of Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, in his Cultural Front blog suggests that the current lack of dynamism in African-American poetry is driving black students away from studying or writing poems.

MacArthur's paper has no solutions for eradicating Poet Voice from university open mic nights and the back rooms of bookstores. Perhaps the best solution is to simply take the poems away from their writers, who tend to flatten even the most soaring lines. Despite the obvious lack of practice, Bono makes Allen Ginsberg’s “Hum Bom” into one-man comedy routine. Just imagine what he could do with "Howl."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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