Louise Gluck recited her verse in a mesmerizing monotone, Fred Strebeigh employed the lilts and lifts of the Newfoundland accent to bring his essay on whales to life, and a bluegrass melody — sans banjo — allowed the audience to empathize with John Crowley’s frustrated protagonist.
The power of voice is undeniable, and nobody understands the sound and sense, the starts and stops of the spoken word the way a writer does. Monday night’s reading testified to that power, as students crammed the aisles of a Linsly-Chittenden lecture hall to hear six members of Yale’s English faculty read from both new and unpublished works.
In the eight minutes allotted to each of them, the writers — poets Louise Gluck, John Hollander and J.D. McClatchy, essayists Fred Strebeigh and Anne Fadiman and novelist John Crowley — managed to deliver new insight into the contours and rhythms of their poetry and prose.
English chair Langdon Hammer explained the importance of reading works out loud.
“A reading of a piece of prose or a poem is an interpretation of that text,” Hammer said in an e-mail. “It is also an act of communication, of generosity, in which the writer puts herself before us and says, ‘Listen to me: Let me show you how I hear these words.’”
Everyone had to listen when Crowley began to sing during his reading from “4 Freedoms,” his upcoming novel. Drifting through the protagonist’s window as he struggles to produce corporate propaganda, the tune’s distinct twang added flavor to the printed lyrics. The twang was the kind of detail a reader is usually left to guess at, the kind of detail only the author himself could ever confirm.
Strebeigh didn’t sing his essay on saving whales, but he did read it with the singsong inflection characteristic of the piece’s setting. He rejoiced at the opportunity to read his work out loud.
“Reading this was a pleasure because it was a chance to employ the accents that were in my mind when I wrote it,” Strebeigh said.
Poet Hollander conveyed the mood of his pieces through his vocal rhythms, while Fadiman read her essay, “Night Owl,” in an easy, conversational tone.
As soon as one writer’s eight minutes were up, another writer took the stage, allowing listeners to appreciate the sometimes stark differences in style between pieces. Hammer said the reading was designed around these rapid transitions.
“I think there is real value in hearing many writers read together,” said Hammer. “You hear their differences. They show some of the range of possibility for writing. And yet you also hear the care, the commitment to style that binds them together. And in that way they show some of what all strong writing has in common.”
With so many eager students of writing filling the small venue’s seats, the presenters had the luxury of a receptive audience.
“I was touched that so many of our writing students loyally showed up to hear us all intone,” said Fadiman in an e-mail.
Not all the pieces were meant to be read out loud, and some students felt that certain pieces weren’t enhanced in performance.
“I think some pieces benefitted from getting exposure,” said Emma Sloan ’10. “Still, I think some were meant to be read rather than heard.”
Future readings around campus will include more offerings from the English Department and the Schlesinger Visiting Writers Series, which is sponsored by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.