Our local university radio station has a spoken word program every week. Almost each program features excerpts from a live poetry reading the show's host organizes once a month. What has struck me the few times I've listened to the program is people's inability to read their own work aloud. Not only are the majority unable to communicate any of the emotion they might have been feeling when writing, or sense of what their poems are about, a great many of them fail to even pay attention to the structure of their piece. It's like they take a deep breath before they start reading and then blurt it out in one long sentence in an attempt to get something unpleasant over with.
I understand that not all poets are going to be good performers, but I would think if you were going to read your poems aloud to an audience you would make the effort to read them over beforehand. That way you could at least ensure reading through it without having to stop due to misreading a stanza because you ran two thoughts together accidently. It doesn't seem to matter how seasoned a poet the person is either, for while many of the poets on the radio show mentioned above might not have much experience, I've been bored into a stupor by so-called "professional" poets on countless occasions. While I don't expect a performance, I'd hope if somebody was going to read their work they could sound like they were interested in it. However, given the number of times I've sat through monotone recitations it seems like that might be too much to ask for.
The difference between those who put some thought into their presentation and those who don't become intensely obvious when you listen to someone like Viggo Mortensen. His latest CD release, Canciones De Invierno from Perceval Press, combines readings of the poems from the book of the same name and some of Mortensen's compositions for piano. Included with the CD is a small booklet containing the poems, and their English translations, recited on this recording plus a selection of other works by the author.
I'm sure you couldn't help notice the words English translation in the last paragraph in reference to the poems; well that's because all of the poems are read in Spanish. I confess I hadn't known that when I asked for a copy of the disc to review, and I might not have done so if I had, for I can't speak a word of the language. However, after having listened to the disc a couple of times now, language is less an issue then I had first anticipated it being. Sure I'm not getting a word by word literal translation while listening to the poems being read, as trying to keep up by reading the English version is nowhere near as effective a means as lets say watching a subtitled movie. However you still are able to come to a basic understanding of what's being said in the moment, and then an even clearer one when you read them over afterword.
Of course it also helps that Mortensen does a superb job of reading his poetry. While it doesn't make much of a difference when it come to a literal comprehension of the poem when you're as uni-lingual as myself, his readings communicate on an emotional level as well as intellectual. I don't mean that his voice breaks with tears or anything as melodramatic as that, rather it's what he does with his inflections, tones and intonations that give the listener an indication of his state of mind when listening to him read.
I have to admit that on occasion his abilities actually worked against comprehension as it was easy to become caught up in the sound of his voice and let yourself be carried away by its cadences. It might have been your intention to read the translation a pace with his recitation, but then you are caught up in the sound of his voice and before you know it the poem has ended without you having even glanced at the English.
I was forcibly reminded of a conversation I once had about opera with somebody. I had commented that I couldn't understand how you could enjoy it without comprehending what was being sung. In reply I was told the words weren't important, it was the music that mattered. It's only been in recent years as I've begun listening to music with lyrics sung in languages other than English that I've been able to let go of having to know what's being said in order to appreciate a piece of music. It's very much like learning how to appreciate anything in the abstract and allowing a piece to move you for what it does and not what it is.
The expressiveness of Mortensen's voice is such that it imparts textures and layers of imagery to his readings in much the same way a painter would with paint on a canvas. Inflection, intonation, rhythm and cadence work together in much the same way music does for an opera singer in helping to convey the emotional message of a poem. You may not understand a poem's literal meaning but you will appreciate it none the less. The fact that he has included a variety of his piano pieces on the CD goes a long way in assisting the listener in accepting the poems in this manner. For while they may not be directly associated with the spoken word aspect of the recording, they establish an atmosphere conducive to this approach.
In some ways his music is very similar to his poetry in style and expression. There are no mad progressions of notes or rousing choruses to manipulate your emotions. Instead there are seemingly simple arrangements of chords which carry the listener with them as they journey through the emotional landscape Mortensen is mapping. It would be easy to think of the music as sad or even moody. but the truth is, like the poems, it is more conducive to introspection than any particular emotion. As you listen you'll be aware of your thoughts drifting away from the music and then circling back again. In fact you may not even return to awareness until your reverie is gently interrupted by the sound of his voice beginning the next poem. Like the sound of the Spanish, for those of us who don't speak the language, the music is another river of sound for us to float along, absorbing what we will, when we want.
Canciones De Invierno is a collection of music and poetry that proves language is no barrier to communication. While many poets have trouble getting their message across even when speaking the same language as their audience, it seems no matter what language he's speaking in Viggo Mortensen faces no such difficulty. While I'm sure those who understand Spanish will appreciate this work more, don't let a lack of fluency stop you from enjoying this collection. There really is something for everyone in it. Canciones De Invierno can be purchased directly from Perceval Press
(Article first published as Music Review: Viggo Mortensen - Canciones De Invierno(Spoken Word) on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted January 2011)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.