Conspiring with the Dead: On the Power of Reading Poetry Aloud

By ANDREW KAY

DanteOver the last few years, my lit geek friends and I have enacted a tradition wherein we gather for an evening at someone’s house, often mine, and read poetry aloud until late into the night. For those who didn’t know better, such a description might conjure images of Robin Williams circa 1989 — middle part, expression of rapt sincerity — crouched in a New England shrubbery with a pubescent Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, solemnly intoning from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, and whoever the hell wrote “Invictus,” contemplating with awful shudders the brevity of life and the perils of conformity. Ours, though, is no dead poets society; we’re adult people who’ve cracked 30 and are largely locked into our life paths, academics adrift in a digital age yet still aware of a need for rhythmic communal chant.

Typically my friends show up at around eight p.m., toting bags swollen with John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and bottles of Trader Joe’s vaunted $2.99 vintage; I fire up my waffle maker (I like fancying I’ve invented nighttime waffles); and we sit in a circle taking turns reading, sometimes going as late as one or two. We’re English academics by training, but we deliberately avoid analyzing the poetry. For once, we’re just going to enjoy, to muzzle the close readers within us and indulge an appetite as elemental — as bodily — as that for waffles, gleaning pleasure from syllables that take shape along the lips and vibrate in the viscera. For once, we’ll merely be moved. (At a gathering last year, one attendee performed Hart Crane’s “Voyages,” and the poem’s mysterious last stanza prompted another guest to begin dissecting it instinctively, only to be cut off by a third guest with a scornful “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!”).

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