How To Read Poetry To an Audience

A poem's performance begins where the writing leaves off.  Often, a poem read aloud is the first time it is shared, a critical moment for a piece of art.  Here are some ways to help make sure the first moment is a successful one:

  1. Finalize your written poem.  Though this may seem obvious, it is very important to finalize the written text of a poem before thinking about its delivery.  You cannot make last-minute edits and expect the same confident delivery as you would with text you have been familiar with for weeks.  Finish your poem before you commit yourself to further preparations, such as annotating and memorizing -- you'll find that sticking to this rule saves you lots of time and frustration in the long run.

  • Memorize your poem.  Even though you'll have your written text available as you read, it's always a good idea to memorize your poem.  By memorizing in advance, you avoid making mistakes you might make during sight reading, and you'll be more confident.
  • Annotate your poem.  Read through your poem with a pen, making notes of the emotions and tone of the poem's speaker.  Block out sections you feel need to be spoken loudly or softly, quickly or with great enunciation.  Are there lines that are particularly ironic, joyful, or angry?  Are there small spikes in emotion or meaning you want to emphasize?  Highlight those lines.
  • Create a vocal text.  Read through the poem with the emotions you've blocked out, taking care to change your tone and volume to the appropriate emotion with each line.  By varying your delivery, you avoid creating a mono-tone delivery that can quickly lose an audience's attention.  Pay special attention to the lines you've highlighted.  These are lines you've decided need special emphasis, and you should consider each delivery very closely.  Often, it is extra important to enunciate these lines, so slowing down and focusing on articulation is usually a great place to start.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  Unfortunately, there is no easy recipe to turn a rookie into a veteran overnight.  The most polished performances come from constantly re-thinking the vocal text and reading it aloud dozens of times, if not hundreds!  Often, performing in front of a mirror or listening to a recording of yourself is a good way to improve if you don't have a friend around to critique you.
  • Time your poem.  Open mics are often guests of bars and restaurants, and they have strict time constraints.  It's rare that you'll find a venue that will allow you to read indefinitely!  Open mic rules vary from venue to venue, usually allowing from one poem or 5 minutes to 3 poems or 10 minutes.  Knowing how long it takes to read your poetry lets you plan your time on mic in advance - one more thing you don't have to worry about as you focus on your reading!
  • Learn from others!  There are thousands of poets across the country, each with their own style, voice, and performance techniques.  Each of them will reveal unique gestures, intonations, and poetry techniques, but you'll only notice if you're paying close attention.  Don't just listen to the local poetry "superstars," even the worst poets teach you: when listening to poems you dislike, ask yourself "Why don't I like this?"  By being aware of possible shortcomings you might face, you give yourself a chance to skip over them. 
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