While reading these poems allowed, I made a conscious effort to avoid the currently popular style which features a strained voice best exemplified by the old Doctor on “Lost in Space” crying out, “Oh, the pain, the pain.” You cannot hear a poem read on NPR without it being read in that pained, aching style. It doesn’t matter what show you hear it on, everybody reads poetry as though they have a knife in the belly and are gasping to speak those precious last few stanzas.I listen to this stuff in part because I’m a fairly erudite man of letters who is constantly on the make for the hidden gems within the NPR talus pile. I’m also a glutton for punishment. Most importantly, I’m the kind of guy who consumes bad things out of a desire to analyze and dissect them. That’s out of a desire to understand what makes them bad, and a further desire not to make the same mistakes.
Generally speaking, the poetry you hear on NPR interviews or those literary dumping ground shows they have features half-bright women desperate to appear deep and meaningful. They don’t trust their words, so they feel a need to give the poem a little more drama by clenching their vocal chords and reading it as though Chewbacca was choking them for their sudden but inevitable betrayal.
While reading Chesterton and Saint Augustine of Hippo, I used a clear, strong voice. (Seriously, how can you feel anything but happiness when you read the beautiful, deep, and clever word choice of a man with such a wry sense of presentation as Chesterton?) When done, my thoughts drifted to the man most responsible for this painful style of reading – Garrison Keillor.
His show, “Writer’s Almanac” confused me for the longest time. For those not in the know, it’s a hodge-podge show where the host takes a bunch of items of literary interest and strings them together to produce a sort of variety show for writers. Of course, this being NPR, the writing they feature is always the turgid prose and dreary second-rate philosophizing of fans of lit-ra-chure, rather than the solid wordcraft, joy of writing, and rip-snorting fun of adventure fiction. So it’s a really, really boring show.
Now, I’m a bit of a fan of Keillor. I grew up listening to “Prairie Home Companion”, and he always struck me as a man who loved flyover country, and the people who inhabit it, even as he desperately sought acceptance by the ‘coastal in-crowd’. He is a midwesterner at heart, and the PHC, while never exciting or hilarious, was always amusing and comforting. Like eating at the Cracker Barrel restaurant or wrapping up in a warm blanket in front of a fire on a snowstormy night. In fact, I appreciate that his voice is made for a show like that. It’s honest, and sincere – that of a grandfather spinning yarns and dispensing advice. It works…for that show.
But somehow, thanks (I believe) in part to “The Writer’s Almanac”, everybody and their cousin that goes on NPR to read poetry thinks they have to read it using the same style as Keillor.
And I promise, you’ll never hear me read a poem in that style. I’ll always read them like a man on a mission – a mission to bring each and every poem with the drive, feel, and emotion that the poet intended.