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The Odd Dangers of Writers as Readers

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Here is T.S. Eliot reading “The Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock”:

In undergrad, I read Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape and loved it. Then, near the end of that same semester, I had a chance to see the play performed by a man Beckett had personally chosen to play Krapp. It was like seeing the piece performed in Beckett’s own mind — I was thrilled.

Until I saw the play.

It turned out Beckett had an avant-garde play in his mind, and I had a minimalist play in mine. Every motion of the man playing Krapp — from his peeling a banana to his walking across the stage — felt stilted and ridiculous and unnecessary to me. It was such a profoundly disappointing production that it effectively ruined even the reading of Krapp’s Last Tape for me.

Hearing an author read their own work can be much the same way. In the most recent MFA residency period at Tampa, poet Ben Lerner mentioned how poet Robert Creeley preferred his line breaks to be read with a pause and how Creeley bristled when William Carlos Williams read through the line breaks and headed only punctuation.

In the above video, T.S. Eliot reads “The Love Song” like he’s asking a hundred consecutive questions. I read love song like Johnny Cash would — that’s how I read all poetry, with the steady rhythm and low grumble of a steam train.

There is, in the hands of the readers, a certain privilege to read a poem or story the way we prefer. We may take the meanings how we like; we may hear the speaker’s voice how we want.

And to those ends, maybe it is best to leave Becket, Elliot, and Creeley to their writerly roles, and leave the reading to the readers.

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