Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Unintentional Mutilation of Text: Speaking the Written Word, Reading the Spoken Word

It is common practice to task students with reading poetry. They have an anthology book, or some electronic text on a class’s website, and are told to read various poems by various dates, and then to be ready to discuss, analyze, write about, or take a written examination about these poems.

This is the ubiquitous structure of literature classes.

In this way, students are exposed to, and hopefully consume, magnificent poetry: Longfellow, Wordsworth, Blake, Poe, etc.

There may, however, be something fundamentally wrong with this approach: poetry is almost always designed to be an auditory, not a visual, experience.

Among the exceptions are visual poems, sometimes called ‘concrete’ poetry, like Lewis Carroll’s “The Mouse’s Tale.”

Despite these anomalies, the vast majority of poems are intended mainly to be heard.

Would it be more legitimate for teachers and professors to assign students to hear, rather than read, poetry? With the ability to post audio files on the web, this could be easily done, and might in some cases conform more closely to the author’s intent.

By the same token, is violence done to written texts when they are transformed into ‘audio books’?

A novel by, e.g., Jane Austen or Mary Shelley, was written to be visually consumed, not auditorily. If a person listens to Middlemarch or Atlas Shrugged, rather than seeing the text, is the experience less than, or other than, what the author intended?

When approaching a text, then, it is worth asking, relatively early on in the process, whether the author intended the text to be seen or heard.