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You've all been there, sitting at your desk and cringing.  Perhaps it's fifth period English and you're drowsy after lunch, trying simultaneously to stay awake and not let the cute boy across the isle catch you staring.  Perhaps you're two hours into poetry workshop and you've used up all the polite little compliments you know.  Perhaps you're at a reading and somebody who really should know better, someone who has a Pulitzer, for god's sake, is driving you up the wall with it and your only consolation is the cute girl two seats over.  You should have sat next to her when you had the chance.  Regardless, you're cringing and wondering why the hell you're here.  Not because you're about to get caught, or be rude, or give up on professional poets (and, as long as we're being honest, you were about to give up on them anyway).  No, you're about to give up because people - good people, smart people, tenured people, published people - have no idea how to read out loud.  And it's making you miserable because you know that even schoolchildren can do better.  It's worse than listening to someone learn to play the violin.  With a saw.  Drunk.

Reading poetry isn't hard.  Like everything else, there are just a few simple rules, and it just takes a little practice.  Unlike everything else, it can make you look smooth.  It can get you dates and whiten your teeth.  It will make you sexy.  It will wash your car.  It will buy you a better car.  So practice.

Some general guidelines, in no real order:

  1. The rhythm is already there.  You don't have to add it.  Trust me: nobody wants to listen to "Whose WOODS these ARE I THINK I KNOW" pounded out with all the regularity and subtlety of a piledriver, much less someone forcing a line into a rhythmic shape completely alien to it.  Let the rhythm that's there happen.  You don't even have to think about it.  This goes doubly for Shakespeare.

  2. Lines are enjambed for a reason.  The reason is that the poet doesn't want you to pause when you get to the end.  If the line isn't end-stopped, don't break it.  You don't just go.  Around throwing random.  Pauses into prose unless there is a.  Period.  Or other punctuation.  Mark.  It's not only awkward, but it also changes the meaning.

  3. Make sure you understand the poem a little before you read it to anyone.  You don't have to know everything about it, but make sure you have an idea about which parts are funny, which parts are touching, which parts are true.  Don't try to make them any funner, more meaningful or, god forbid, truer.  Again, they're already there.  Just know it and the words will do the work.  Unless it's a crappy poem.

  4. Read slowly.  You read faster in front of other people than you do in front of the mirror.  You read faster yet when you are trying to impress.

  5. Breathe deep.  You don't want to have to break a line because you're out of air.  Again, if you're in any way anxious about speaking in front of people, you will have more problems here than when practicing.  Trust me - so long as you're following rules 1 and 2 they'll be impressed.  Relax.

  6. Timbre is important.  Don't declaim.  Don't preach.  And please, don't enunciate like you're British unless you're actually British.  That sounds silly.
That's all you need.  Remember, when you read a poem you are making it different from everything it's been before.  Reading aloud is an act of creation.

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