At Latitude yesterday, the Betjeman poems selected to be recited were mostly about sex and death, and did not include my favourites of his poems, with the shining exception of Business Girls. What was interesting to me was how moving the poems became when well recited. Not all of them were well recited. A number of the poets who are on the bill at Latitude performed them, and, interestingly, it was the women and the only older man (take a bow, Mr Elvis McGonagall) who recited the best; the younger men tended to be a bit too shouty.
The last two poems, On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man, and A Child Ill, were recited by a woman who described them as two of the saddest she had ever read. I had not really noticed them particularly, although I knew them both well, but the recitation brought them alive to me. The first is about Betjeman’s dead father, the second about his sick child, but also about his father’s death. The last verse of the second is “My father looked at me and died/before my soul made full reply./ Lord, leave this other light alight./ Oh, little body, do not die.” Thanks to her recitation I was nearly weeping whilst listening and I will remember it.
The correct stress, the correct tone (or perhaps I should just say the stress and tone) are massively important for the emotional and intellectual effect of any writing when heard aloud. When Simon Callow stressed Shakespeare’s lines “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore/So do our minutes hasten to their end.” on the final words of each line, he was stressing the fact that both come to an end, but by moving the stress to ‘waves’ and ‘minutes’ he made the simile much more powerful, by introducing the idea of our lives driving forwards ineluctably towards the point at which they crash inescapably onto the unyielding shore of our mortality. When we read, we can put our own stress and tone in, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but when we listen we are at the mercy of the speaker.