In junior high, we students got our first taste of performance competition. It’s been called by many names, but we called it “oral interpretation”. I can’t now recall the exact categories; perhaps: dramatic, humorous, and poetry, but I may be wrong.
I remember that the most difficult part was picking a piece to perform. I poured over the works we had to choose from, even asking at one point if we could write our own. I was told you can sort of do that in high school. That category, it would turn out, was called “original oratory”.
I remember practicing a piece with the oral interp instructor. The piece used a regular foot and meter, and it even rhymed. As I began to read the lines, the instructor stopped me. She informed me that, for competition, poetry is not supposed to be read that way. Read it by the sentences; don’t pause at the line endings, and don’t make it obvious that you’re rhyming.
Honestly, I was put off by this. It seemed unnatural and contrary to read poetry that way. It felt like an attempt to read poetry as if it were prose. Wouldn’t this do a disservice to poetry? I asked all these questions of myself, but I did not ask them aloud. Instead, I did what I was told, and I reread the poetry, apparently to her liking.
I mention this because I just read some poetry. I mention this because I still think about how odd it felt to read poetry that way and how it runs across my mind whenever I come upon poetry. I think about that, but then I compare it to my own poetry. When I write poetry, I am very much aware of the line endings. That break, that step, is as much an important part of the poem as the meter and foot. It equal in importance to the words themselves. Why, then, shouldn’t someone read poetry for the lines?
I, deliberately, choose the life of each line. To read poetry ignorant of its physical structure is as graceful as somersaulting down a flight of stairs. The steps are there for a reason.