Conspiring with the Dead: On the Power of Reading Poetry Aloud

October 15, 2015 | 3 11 min read


Over the last few years, my lit geek friends and I have enacted a tradition wherein we gather for an evening at someone’s house, often mine, and read poetry aloud until late into the night. For those who didn’t know better, such a description might conjure images of Robin Williams circa 1989 — middle part, expression of rapt sincerity — crouched in a New England shrubbery with a pubescent Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, solemnly intoning from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, and whoever the hell wrote “Invictus,” contemplating with awful shudders the brevity of life and the perils of conformity. Ours, though, is no dead poets society; we’re adult people who’ve cracked 30 and are largely locked into our life paths, academics adrift in a digital age yet still aware of a need for rhythmic communal chant.

Typically my friends show up at around eight p.m., toting bags swollen with John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and bottles of Trader Joe’s vaunted $2.99 vintage; I fire up my waffle maker (I like fancying I’ve invented nighttime waffles); and we sit in a circle taking turns reading, sometimes going as late as one or two. We’re English academics by training, but we deliberately avoid analyzing the poetry. For once, we’re just going to enjoy, to muzzle the close readers within us and indulge an appetite as elemental — as bodily — as that for waffles, gleaning pleasure from syllables that take shape along the lips and vibrate in the viscera. For once, we’ll merely be moved. (At a gathering last year, one attendee performed Hart Crane’s “Voyages,” and the poem’s mysterious last stanza prompted another guest to begin dissecting it instinctively, only to be cut off by a third guest with a scornful “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!”)

Why do we crave this ritual? Clearly it satisfies some fundamental need: My friends spontaneously clamor for it, texting me with some variant of “OMFG need poetry in my lyfe, plz accommodate.” And it’s common for one or more of them to write me the day after the event to the effect that they feel lighter, physically and spiritually replenished, that their limbs are more lissome. It’s tempting to reach for an explanation of the numinous sort. Algernon Swinburne, the Victorian poet, had a theory that the rhythms of the best poetry were in mystic synchrony with the cadences of the cosmos; chanting these poems, he thought, we can feel ourselves momentarily aligned with the beating of waves, the earth’s punctual tiltings, the patterns of tides as the world’s waters yearn for the moon then dutifully recede.

But the answer is at least as likely to be a mundane one: These evenings promise oases of togetherness that, harkening back to a direct oral tradition largely vanished into the past, relieve the aridity of lives dominated by social media. Across the Western world there has lately been a resurgence of interest in reading out loud. In a 2013 Guardian story, Elizabeth Day tells of a popular book club she organized at a London art gallery, a ritual she conceived as a pointed riposte to the alienation of postmodern life. Day describes experiences of shared, unconcealed intimacy — of listeners crying; finding temporary relief from chronic pain during the readings; approaching her afterward to say, for example, that a particular novel’s protagonist appeared to be suffering from PTSD, and that they’d felt a kinship with him in this regard. In a historical moment obsessed with “awkwardness,” when young people, donning irony like a breastplate, studiously avoid being moved, pastimes like Day’s reading club promise windows of vulnerability in the company of others.

But our gatherings center on poetry, specifically, which imparts to them a quasi-liturgical dimension that I suspect gets to the core of why we keep coming together. So many of us stodgy, skeptical academics find ourselves living in a post-religious shell, incapable of entertaining the promises of scripture but thirsting, no less, for whatever remains of church-going when we’ve drained it of the dogma. Mind and body still long for incantation, still look to rhythmic utterance to fasten social bonds, still find in poetry’s pulses and open-mouthed vowels the grammar of praise.

Praise isn’t a thing we literary academics tend to excel at. Weaned on the likes of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, our critical minds are wired to “problematize” not praise. Here, we are trained to say, is how this particular text is complicit in this or that insidious ideology — or, somewhat more positively, how it helps us critique an ideology, or a form of oppression or inequality. And who can blame us? We live in a country where the less affluent 50 percent of the population now possesses around 1 percent of its wealth, and each successive week seems to bring a new instance of racialized violence. Not to critique these ills, as they become visible in literary texts, would amount to self-delusion.

Yet we are left, many of us critics, with a deep-down impulse to praise, and the above formula does little to sate this need. If we are only going to “interrogate” literature (that favorite word!), why read at all, much less devote our careers to these works in spite of all the pressures, monetary and otherwise, that scream at us to stop and turn around? Critique is a fundamentally negative gesture, and as one’s default readerly mode it leads to a kind of attrition. At the end of the day we all need to eat — and praise may be the first step toward attaining sustenance, the utterance of thanksgiving before the feast. A world transfigured by praise is one worth living in — and, crucially, one worth renovating, endeavoring to reform. Praising it, we impose on ourselves a degree of humility and receptivity to others and their gifts, to nature with its superabundance of beauty and wonder that cries out to be cataloged and shared. We remind ourselves that humans can be remarkable during a time when being human is so frequently cause for shame.

Our poetry gatherings answer this need in part by allowing us to praise the poetry itself. Having listened to someone read Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” we have that rare freedom to lean back, heroin junkies on the nod, lost in a dream of pleasure. “How could it be so good?” someone will mutter. “Ambiguous undulations,” I’ll say, quoting from the poem’s last lines and shaking my head. “Jesus Christ, dude.”

But they also enable us to use the poetry as a vehicle for praising a world that can seem emphatically undeserving of celebration. One pattern I’ve observed in our readings is the frequency with which guests choose poems that foreground praise. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, has been a recurrent favorite through the years. Few if any of my friends are Catholic, but we find bracing release in belting out Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” We relish its opening hurrah, “Glory be to God for dappled things!”, its breathless effusion of gratitude for the mottled splendor of the created world — a gratitude that finally extends to the force that engendered all this wealth: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.” We may be a pack of Marxist-atheist-Derrideans for whom life itself is a condition of epistemological undecidability, but goddammit, glory be to God for dappled things.

Both within academia and in certain circles outside it, a reflexive tendency toward complaint is often touted as a badge of honor — indeed as the only reasonable response to the atrocities of postmodernity. Yet, in a sense, we are far more insulated from suffering than the legions of the long dead, people who inhabited pre-modern worlds for whom the likes of plague, of every manner of tyranny and cruelty, were commonplaces; for whom childbirth and death were phenomena conjoined more often than not. These are also people who left, in their wake, acres of celebratory poetry and song — the ghazals of the ancient Middle East and India, the exuberant chants of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Josquin. We can, if we like, dismiss these works as mere exercises in escapism, or embarrassing manifestations of lizard brains more robust in people of previous ages. That such praise might instead of have been a heroic, transcendent gesture, that the everyday specter of death might have pummeled these people into praise, pressuring them to seek out footholds of sustaining joy — this seems to me the fresher thesis. Long before Stevens came along to teach us that “death is the mother of beauty,” people who wandered through worlds of affliction saw the luminousness of reality the more glaringly for all the surrounding darkness.

Humans, then, have long looked to poetry as an organ for acclaiming creation. Witness the Psalms (literally “praises”) or, more recently, miniature masterpieces like A.R. Ammons’s “The City Limits” and Denise Levertov’s “O Taste and See” (itself a homage to Psalm 34.8). Poems like these enjoin us to delight in the world, the feast of it all, and are themselves a feast to speak out loud. But they constitute a banquet the wider American public is largely unaware of, though it is starving for lack of it. How do most Americans think of poetry, to the extent they think of it at all? In the same way, maybe, as they do a piece of antique farm equipment — a John Deere steam tractor, or an iron push-plow — left over from an era when eloquence, like husbandry, was a skill the import of which went without saying, an assumed fixture of reality. A curiosity to be dragged out, dusted off, and deployed at weddings, then shunted back into storage again; a thing invariably about love or “nature,” enfolding glib life lessons on the superiority of less-traveled roads.

Worst of all, Americans think of poetry as a “learning device.” I just tried Googling “The World is Too Much with Us,” William Wordsworth’s great sonnet on the spiritual bankruptcy of an early 19th-century Britain enthralled by “getting and spending.” Among the initial batch of 10 results, five were as follows: Sparknotes, a study guide called Shmoop, Gradesaver, Cummings Study Guides, and something called 123helpme. I clicked on Shmoop, the slogan of which is the delightfully pithy and confidence-instilling “We Speak Student,” and which boasts of being the brainchild of “PhD students from Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley.” The site had carved up Wordsworth’s poem into categories like summary, analysis (which consisted of headings including “Tough-O-Meter” and “Sex Rating;” except when he’s ravaging violet bushes, old Billy’s sexiness quotient is generally pretty low, it turns out), and themes. I decided to click on themes, one of which was sadness. “Does our obsession with getting and spending make you sad?” ran one of the study questions. An advertisement for Land Rovers materialized in the side bar.

Poor poetry! Colonized by cheesy pedagogical guides, mined by academics for revolutionary truths, reduced to tepid adages better left to fortune cookies. What if we valued it instead for the elegantly simple reason that it promises connection — of mind to body, one reader to another, living to dead. Machinery of praise, mode of being moved, repository of pleasure, poetry is finally, above all perhaps, that which connects. And the way it accomplishes this seems to me to have everything to do with breath.

Poetry is a uniquely visceral art form. A poem, after all, is distinct from a painting, or a piano sonata, or an instance of architecture, insofar as our own bodies provide the medium in which it takes shape. No physical remove separates audience from artifact; we apprehend it with the intimacy of a thing that has quickened to life in our lungs. As incantation, poetry can implicate readers-aloud in meticulously managed breathing patterns. I suspect many people are now turning to it in part for the same reason they seek out yoga meditation: They’ve grown alienated from their bodies. Purposeful breath-work is one of the best ways of reclaiming those bodies, since breath is perhaps the ultimate dramatization of the oneness of mind and flesh. In some very real sense, which inveterate meditators grasp, the stream of your breath is the stream of your thoughts. Far from a removed, autonomous entity, the mind is tethered to the lungs, themselves reliant on a shared substance that only lately pervaded someone else. In this way, breath is an index not just of the psychosomatic nature of thought, but our interdependence as humans.

But breath may also be the dimension of poetry that binds the bodies of living readers to poets lost past. For guidance on how this works, we might look to none other than John Keats, one of poetry’s great theorizers about breathing. Keats had a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward breath: As a teenager he watched his mother surrender to tuberculosis, an illness the symptoms of which included coughing and blood spitting and that climaxed in the precipitous waste of the body. Eight years later, he witnessed his brother die of the same disease, and around 1818, at age 23, contracted it himself, writing his greatest poetry with an awareness that his lungs were slowly collapsing.

These ghastly experiences guaranteed Keats would be alert to the mouth’s stunning efficacy as a point of entry into the body and intellect. Death visited one at the mouth, “taking into the air” one’s “quiet breath” as Keats imagines it doing in the “Ode to a Nightingale,” just one of the many death/breath rhymes in his oeuvre. Yet breathing, while mortally perilous, also carried the potential — orchestrated by poets, reproduced by performing readers — to be therapeutic, even to offer the poet a measure of immortality. Poems were monuments of embodied eloquence that, when spoken, enabled the reader to breathe in time with the poet. Keats’s term for this synchronized breathing was conspiring, a phenomenon whereby readers were involved in the breathings of the poet. Poetry was, in this regard, twinned in his imagination with eroticism; love, as “Endymion” makes clear, was a “fellowship with essence” achievable through a “commingling of passionate breath.” “I cannot breathe without you,” he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne in 1819.

By that same year, cognizant of his faltering breath, Keats began composing a series of poems that crystallized that same breath. These “life masks” took the form, not of the plaster cast that famously preserved his face, but respiratory relics that redeemed from oblivion his modes of inhalation and exhalation. “To Autumn” is one of these. At its core it’s a poem about breathing, one that begins by imagining an eroticized union of the autumn goddess with the Apollonian sun, whose “conspiring” brings about the wealth inventoried in the lines that follow. But the poem seeks to establish an analogous union with the reader. It achieves this partly through a sibilance (e.g., “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”) that gives the poem its ductility, its ability to accommodate a largely unobstructed stream of breath. It does so, too, through a succession of oblate, open-mouthed vowel sounds — sounds that occur in monosyllabic, Ango-Saxon-derived words (e.g., mourn, gourd, bourne) that help give “To Autumn” the quality of meditative chant. And the poem is breath-like in its structure. The first stanza, with its heaping of infinitives — unconjugated verbs that build toward an illusion of infinite plenty — represents an inhalation of a sort, an in-spiring that will yield fruit later on; the second stanza, evoking a fleeting pause amid the harvest, that momentary suspension following an intake of breath; the final stanza, a breathing out. That last stanza’s subject is expiration itself: of a day, a season, the swarm of animal life that supplies its “music,” and finally the poet himself, whose troubled, tubercular breath is just audible in the ode’s sibilance, liberated afresh each time we read the poem aloud. Performing “To Autumn” entails conspiring with Keats.

Conspiring with Keats — praising season or urn, plangent song or piquant mood — readers resurrect him for a time. Breath, if an entryway for death, has the power to transcend it; habitually linked with ephemerality, it is paradoxically freighted with the potential to endure. In poetry’s respiratory patterns, frozen in verse forms that enable us to breathe in concert with their authors, we may discover evidence of a shared humanity. Early on in what would become the century of séances and mediumship, Keats offered a secular version of resurrection, one in which the breath-shapes of the dead, distilled in the amber of poetry, materialize afresh in the lungs of the living.

This was a version of rebirth one senses Keats — scornful of religion but entranced by the prospect of immortality — could get behind. Maybe, to the extent we enact such resurrections in gathering to chant poetry, my friends and I do make up something like a dead poets society after all. Maybe we gain access to the physiological rhythms of generations who flourished and died in the drawing rooms, the fields, the streets of worlds ever more alien to ours, suspiring in time with them; converted, as we do so, into mediums in whose mouths the breaths of bygone people take shape. Maybe there’s a connection in this, ghostly in its immediacy and tactility.

What’s certain, anyway, is that we discover a connection with one another. Depleted from the remorseless round of workaday responsibilities, from checking Facebook and Instagram 12 times an hour, safely insulated from each other and the natural world by noise-canceling headphones, we make our way, enervated and starving, back to this reliable reservoir of cohesion. Here is a heightened register of language that embarrasses all the flotsam and jetsam strewn across Twitter and Buzzfeed. Here is a chance, for all the world’s seemingly incurable infectedness, to cry back to it an utterance of thanks. Hallelujah: from the Hebrew hallēl, a very breathy word, “to praise.” Praise: from the Latin pretium — price, worth, reward. For a passing interval, gathered together and conspiring with the dead, we might convince ourselves that the world is worth redeeming at whatever price; that notwithstanding its flaws, it’s laden with inconceivable riches — rewards that we, granting our own shortcomings, might even deserve.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

is a writer, editor, and academic who lives in Madison, Wisc.


  1. What a wonderful post! I don’t have a circle of friends who I could share the experience of reading poetry with and I’m a comparatively recent convert to poetry although I’ve always been a big reader. I’ve recently been reading an anthology of John Donne’s poems and I tried reading aloud to myself and it’s amazing how it really lifts it from the page! I’m going to try and go back and try the same approach with my other favourite poets.

    Cheers from the UK


  2. Thank you! Not only is this breath, manna, and music, it convinces me to try this concept as a regular evening offering. I’ll report to the author by email if it finds success. Possible names for the offering: Listen, Aloud, Park Your Cellphones at the Door. This will also give me a chance to introduce music. Not only am I a life long poetry geek, I am a church musician; I’m thrilled at the prospect of addressing a bit of the poverty most of us experience at the loss of words rhyme, meter and purpose.

    My contribution to this morning’s theme of exaltation and liturgy: “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” from Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno

  3. Kudos to the author, who sounds as if he’s coming out of the grad school fog. Reading poetry aloud is powerful and community building and I like Swinburne’s idea, as weird as it sounds. As Verlaine said: Music is above everything else. Thanks much for this post. It makes me want to return to Millions

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