The words “cowboy poet” mean, to most, someone with a repertoire of memorized poems who is ready and willing to spout off a spiel of them at the drop of a palm-leaf sombrero. Well, I consider myself a cowboy poet of sorts, but my feet don’t fit those stirrups. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t recite poems very often. On occasion, if asked, I will say a poem or two in public. But it’s not my thing. And, frankly, I’m not very good at it. In fact, I am expecting a check from the federal government because my latest performance was so bad it was officially declared a disaster.
Being first and foremost a writer, I would rather devote my time to the work of writing and selling words. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But, mostly, I do not recite much because I am lazy. Being an effective reciter takes a lot of work and a lot of time.
So, you ask, what am I doing dispensing advice on reciting? Well, for starters, I have sat and listened to more cowboy poetry than most, as attending gatherings is something I enjoy and have been doing for years. And I have read a good deal more poetry than I’ve listened to.
Beyond that, and probably more important, I have spent years and years as a producer and director of radio and television commercials, working with actors and voice talent, from unschooled amateurs to Hollywood professionals. Much of that work involves directing the actor’s interpretation and delivery of lines. So, I have a considerable amount of experience in critical hearing; listening to people saying things, and helping them say it better.
What I’ll relate here is, primarily, principles and practices, philosophies and fundamentals. Most improvement comes through individual effort, but the effort must be informed by knowledge. It’s a lot easier to pull a calf if you’ve learned something about a cow’s anatomy and the way a birth is supposed to occur than if you just roll up your sleeves and attempt the task in ignorance. Most of you will already know, on some level, the things we’ll talk about. But, maybe, hearing them again, perhaps in a different way, will help you see and think about them from a new angle.
For simplicity’s sake, I have divided the process of recitation into three parts: Preparation, Practice, and Performance. These are arbitrary divisions, of course, and there is overlap in all areas. But it does provide a convenient path along which we can lead and follow this discussion.
While sound is of paramount importance in a poem, a poem is not just a sequence of sounds strung together. A poem is made up of words. Know what the words say, what they mean. Some readers and reciters just repeat a seemingly unconnected string of sounds, and never seem to consider what they are saying.
Become familiar with the words. Read the poem, over and over and over and over until you feel like you’ve crawled inside the author’s head and understand every word, every meaning, every nuance. Learn how the words are formed into thoughts, into phrases, into sentences, and what they all mean and how they relate to one another. Know how the story unfolds; the introduction, the exposition, the conflict, the resolution.
Understand not just what the words say explicitly, but get to know what they mean implicitly—look for metaphor, underlying meanings, double meanings, veiled meanings, irony, sarcasm, euphemism.
Know how to pronounce every word in a poem—not what you think it sounds like, or even what it ought to sound like, but what it is meant to, and does, sound like as spoken by the people who own the word. Use a dictionary, ask someone who knows. Online or other computer dictionaries often include spoken pronunciations you can hear. Proper pronunciation in cowboy poetry includes both English—American English, that is—words, as well as words from other languages. Cowboy lingo includes many, many Spanish words. Some have been Americanized, even regionalized, others maintain their Spanish character, so beware. And there are Spanish words in the cowboy lingo that have been bastardized to the point they are so far removed from their origin they are almost unrecognizable. For instance, McCarty, theodore, hackamore, buckaroo, and dally all started out as Spanish words, although you’d never know it. But, if you know the word and where it came from and why, you can understand the pronunciation and meaning better, and interpret it properly.
Get to know the people, the characters, in the poem. What personalities and characteristics are implied by their words or actions in the poem? Understand the conflicts they face. Know their motivations. Imagine what they look like.
Figure out a backstory. How might events and characters have gotten to this place? The greater the understanding of the situation you can develop—the characters, the conflicts, the circumstances, the story—the deeper your understanding of the poem will be, adding depth to your feeling for the poem, and, as a result, the emotions you can stir in the audience.
Figure out the subtext. What does this poem mean on a deeper level? Good stories have a surface meaning while also addressing something deeper—a commentary on universal human characteristics, hopes, fears, on relationships, on life. Understand that in the poems you plan to recite.
Look for allusions to other literary works, find out what they mean and how they affect the meaning of the poem. It may well be that it will change your entire understanding of the poem, as the biblical allusions in Badger Clark’s great poem “From Town” did for me. (And may do for you, if you allow the allusions to inform your interpretation.)
Now that you’ve come to understand deeply what the words in a poem mean, concentrate on how they sound. The use of literary techniques not only affect meaning, they affect how the poem should be said, how it should sound. Look for things like alliteration, consonance, assonance, onomatopoeia, rhyme—including internal rhyme—and other bits of word play, and figure out how they should affect delivery. Remember, this fooling around with words and sounds writers (and reciters) indulge in gives poetry richness and interest.
Some or all of the literary qualities I’ve mentioned, and others, are evident in every piece of good literature, including poetry. If you are reciting your own poetry and do not see these kinds of characteristics, your poem is not all it could or should be, and should be reconsidered—your audience deserves a quality piece of work. Remember—the thing that separates poetry from prose, that separates reciting poetry from storytelling, is that poetry elevates the use of language to a higher level; in poetry, the words themselves, and the sounds they make, are every bit as important as what they say. If they’re not, you’re just telling stories. And, wonderful though storytelling is, stories ain’t poems. Even if they rhyme.
Poetry, whether read or recited, is not a spectator sport. Good poetry requires participation on the part of the audience. They won’t get what they deserve if all you’re giving them is a joke set to rhyme or some simplistic or sentimental or sappy story. There’s nothing wrong with tears and laughter, but these can be temporary and fleeting unless you work to make the emotions lasting. A poem should be involving, challenging, and memorable—not just a passing fancy. Through thorough understanding of a poem, you can draw the audience in and hold them. And when you do, they’ll remember—make that feel—a poem long after the tears have dried or the laughter faded.
The only way to know if you can say a poem is to say it. Reciting aloud lets you know, first of all, if you know the poem. You’ll soon learn where your memory is likely to lapse. This gives you the opportunity to give extra effort to the parts of a poem that give your memory difficulty.
Speaking of remembering, there are many techniques that can help. Some work for some but not for others. More than likely, you’ll have to figure out, through practice, what will help you remember.
Just as important, practice will teach you to pay attention and not let your mind wander away from a poem while you’re in the middle of it. In many ways, it’s like riding a green-broke colt. You have to pay attention every step of the way because you never know what might cause a wreck. And, just like it takes a lot of wet saddle blankets to make a good horse, it takes a lot of repetition to stay on top of a poem.
Reciting aloud is more helpful than reciting inside your head. Silent recitation doesn’t help with learning when and where to breathe. Pauses don’t work the same when everything around them is silent. And, the way you hear internally is different from the way you speak. So, the way you think something will sound by hearing it in your head is not the same as it sounds when you actually say it. Reciting aloud helps with memorization, inhalation, exhalation, pronunciation, inflection, phrasing, pacing and is, finally, the only realistic way of preparing.
Many people find recording themselves and playing it back helpful. For the same reason saying a poem silently sounds different in our heads than saying it aloud, we often—almost always—hear ourselves differently from the way others do. It’s a good way to check yourself. Recording can also give you a good way to try different approaches to a poem, as you can compare the recitations. Hearing the poem also points out trouble spots, and lets you hear whether or not your corrections really worked, or if you just think they did.
Practice also leads to consistency. The best voice actors can read a script over and over again, adjusting, with each read, areas you wish changed, but saying everything else exactly the same, every time.
Practice helps overcome stage fright. If you are well prepared, you have less to worry about. Knowing what you want to do, and doing it over and over ahead of time, lets you forget about many of the mechanics of your performance and concentrate on engaging with the audience.
Still, even when you know a poem inside and out, upside down and backwards, you can still go blank on stage; sometimes in the middle of a poem, sometimes before you even begin. It happens to everyone, amateur and professional alike. If there’s a good way out of it, I’ve never seen it. When you die on stage, the best you can hope for is that they’ll speak well of you at the funeral.
There are many other things to do as you learn a poem and practice it. But they also pertain to performance, and we’ll talk about them as we go along.
First and foremost, if you are reciting poems written by others, and the work is not in the public domain, get permission from the poet. Using someone else’s poem without permission is no different than stealing a horse, which, in some places, is a hanging offense. Most writers will be flattered and extend permission with pleasure. Some consider the poems they write their personal and private property and do not want others using them.
If you have permission to recite someone else’s poetry, be sure to give credit on stage. This can be done before or after the poem, but, by all means, do it. Allowing an audience to think the work of others is your own is right up there with stealing the poem on the list of hanging offenses.
Discover and develop your own recitation style. Not everyone is or should be the same. Baxter Black is animated and his performances involve a lot of histrionics. Randy Rieman, on the other hand, is quiet and subdued. But, both are outstanding and effective reciters.
Introductions to poems? There are reasons to preface your poems, but sometimes it is best to just launch into the poem, and “introduce” it afterward. Or, not at all. Often, introductions go on too long, and overwhelm the poem. Some poets write introductions as carefully as they do the poems. Sometimes, they sound too rehearsed—or not rehearsed enough—sounding “memorized” rather than natural. An introduction can end, or blend seamlessly into the poem. Anything can work, if done well.
In presenting the poem, use the punctuation: commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, periods. In rhymed-and-metered poetry, punctuation should take precedence over line breaks. If it is your own composition, make sure you include punctuation—if a poem is published, or if someone else wants to recite it, punctuation helps others say it and hear it as you mean it to be said and heard.
Caesura (a pause or stop within a line) and enjambment (the continuation of one line into the next without pause) may be highfalutin literary terms, but they are crucial to proper recitation. Learn to recognize them, even if you don’t remember the fancy names, and pay attention to how they are used in the poem you are preparing.
Watch for and use conjunctions and other linking-type words that create natural breaks and connections and use them—words like and, but, now, well, then, so, for. Look for sentence structures—series, parallelisms, chiasmus, this and/or that pairs that compare and/or contrast.
Understand how the words are linked together in phrases and clauses. Knit related words together and allow air between phrases.
Study the interplay of hard and soft sounds, consonants and vowels, to discover the rhythm of the words. This works with, but is separate from, the meter. Together, rhythm and meter help determine pace and inflection. As you work out the rhythm, learn to vary the pace and cadence. This should not occur randomly, but should be based on the emotional content of the poem—the action, the tension, the fear, the humor, the sadness. It’s all tied together in a poem: hard and soft sounds, long and short sounds, rhythm, meter, pace, cadence, inflection, content.
When a poem includes dialogue, create variety between the voices to help the listener know who is speaking and to follow the exchange. This can be accomplished through distinctive voices, accents or dialects, or, more subtly, by changes in inflection, pace, attitude. In recitation, as in writing, dialects and accents should be used sparingly and with care. They are often difficult to capture in writing, and interpreting how to say what the writer heard can be difficult. Make sure, most of all, that the meaning is clear to the audience.
Although they’re a big part of what helps you remember a poem, don’t get hung up on the patterns of rhyme and meter. It is easy to fall into a monotonous sing-songy delivery if you do. Not every line ending needs—or wants—a pause. Not every end rhyme wants—or needs—emphasis. Instead, use the punctuation, the conjunctions and connections, the caesura, the enjambment to control the flow and let the rhyme and meter reveal themselves; to overdo them detracts and distracts.
Meeting audience expectations is another factor to consider. Many come to hear cowboy poetry programs in general, and certain poets in particular, expecting to hear what they like, which is often the same old poems over and over. This can be challenging, as giving the audience what it wants can feel like being mired in the mud and never being allowed to move on. It’s a difficult balance. Do not pander to the audience, but respect them and their wishes as well as your own. Present your most challenging poems and new material along with old favorites. Mix what you want them to have with what they want. It’s a never-ending process and needs your careful consideration in preparing for every performance.
Reading the audience is more art than science, and it’s even possible that it cannot be learned. Many reciters have a set program and cannot depart from it no matter the circumstances. A few have the ability to know, instinctively, what will work and what won’t on that particular stage that day and are able to adjust their program on the fly to accommodate the audience. When done well, the process is invisible—no one knows it is happening, or that it happened.
In summary, recitation is not easy nor is it for the fainthearted. It requires a lot of work. From preparation to practice to performance, good reciters devote time to the art and continually work to get better, both in learning new poems and improving the delivery of those they know. If you’re not willing to put in the work and effort to recite well, don’t.
Instead, join me in the audience. We’ll both enjoy the show more that way.