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Monotony, the Churches of Poetry Reading, and Sound Studies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Engaging with and amending the terms of debates about poetry performance, I locate the origins of the default, neutral style of contemporary academic poetry readings in secular performance and religious ritual, exploring the influence of the beat poets, the black arts movement, and the African American church. Line graphs of intonation patterns demonstrate what I call monotonous incantation, a version of the neutral style that is characterized by three qualities: (1) the repetition of a falling cadence within a narrow range of pitch; (2) a flattened affect that suppresses idiosyncratic expression of subject matter in favor of a restrained, earnest tone; and (3) the subordination of conventional intonation patterns dictated by syntax, and of the poetic effects of line length and line breaks, to the prevailing cadence and slow, steady pace. This style is popularly known as “poet voice.” Recordings of four contemporary poets—Natasha Trethewey, Louise Glück, Michael Ryan, and Juliana Spahr—demonstrate this style, which contrasts with more expressive, idiosyncratic readings by poets as distinct as Frank Bidart and Kenneth Goldsmith.

Research Article
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2016

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