Traditionally poetry has been an oratory art. It is only recently, since the advent of the printing press, that poetry has been read more than heard. It is important to be mindful of poetry’s role as a performance as well as entertainment, and should you be called upon to recite a poem aloud, either by reading it from a page or through reciting from memory, some basic poetry reading guidelines will ensure you give the best recital possible.
This How-To guide will provide you with tips to enhance your poetry performance skills.
Preparing to Recite Poetry to an Audience
Know your material.
The best way to boost your confidence level when reciting poetry is to know your material inside and out. For tips on learning your poem, see our guide on “How to Memorize a Poem.”
Recite phrases naturally.
There’s nothing worse when. Hearing someone recite. A poem. Than to hear them pause slightly for each line or stanza break in a poem. When reciting a poem, ignore line breaks and even most punctuation. Just try to recite each sentence or phrase as naturally as possible, as if you were speaking to someone one-on-one.
Speak loudly and clearly.
If you’re going to be reciting to a large audience you’ll likely have a microphone - but regardless of whether you speak into a microphone or just to a few people, your recital will sound better if you project your voice. Imagine the sound coming from deep in your belly. Imagine each word and phrase rising up, lifting out of your mouth and flying across the room like a bird. This visualization sounds silly but it’s important to think of your words as lifting over your audience. You want to make sure that the hard-of-hearing grandmother in the back of the room can understand every single word you’re saying (regardless of whether or not such a person is actually present when you recite your poem).
If you’re nervous when standing up and speaking in front of a crowd, you’ll likely tend to speed up so as to get it over more quickly. Be aware, though, that if you’re afraid of people judging your performance, ruining your recitation by rushing through it won’t improve their estimation of your abilities. Speak slowly and enunciate each word clearly.
You’ll know you’ve slowed down enough when you feel as though you’re reciting too slowly. Try to resist the impulse to speed up.
The only thing worse than a performer pausing awkwardly at the end of each line is a performer who drones on in monotone. Use the context of your poem to determine its delivery. If a poem is sad, recite it like you just heard that a friend’s loved one just died and you are offering your condolences. Is the poem funny? Recite it as if it were the funniest joke you’ve ever heard. Most of all, plan areas in the poem to emphasize. Plan pauses in your delivery (although don’t pause too long or people will think you’re finished and start applauding - and starting up again when your audience thinks you’ve finished is awkward and embarrassing).
The key word here is “plan.” Good performances require proper planning.
After you’ve practiced in private on speaking slowly, clearly, and projecting your voice so people can hear you, you should record yourself (either on audio or video tape) and review your performance. Did you speak too quickly? Mumble? If you videotaped yourself, examine your posture. Are you slouching? Fiddling with your hands?
Knowing the weaknesses in your performance will help you to focus on those areas and improve on them.
Showtime: Tips for Giving a Good Poetry Performance
Now that you know your poem, have practiced reciting it, and are ready to perform your poem in front of an audience, here are some tips to consider to help your performance go off without a hitch.
Dress for success.
Formal clothing will help your presentation - but of course you’ll have to rely on your judgment to dress appropriately. If you’re reciting in front of your high school English class it may not be a good idea to wear a suit and tie, but if you’re going to be performing at a special function or a program of poetry where you’ll be reciting alongside other poetry performers, it may be more appropriate to wear a suit or a nice dress (I would also suggest that your attire be gender appropriate - not that there’s anything wrong with a man in a dress - it’s just that you want people to focus on the words you’re reciting, and not your appearance. So dress conservatively for best results).
Strike a pose.
How you stand will affect how you recite a poem. Don’t slouch. Keep your shoulders back (so you can throw those words out farther) and don’t put your hands in your pockets - it makes your shoulders slouch and ruins your vocal projection.
Personally I really like reciting behind podiums because I can rest my hands on them. However, try to resist the urge to hold on for dear life, and don’t lean on the podium.
Try to stand still - instead of rocking back and forth, try to focus your nervous energy into the words, delivering them with more intensity and power.
Don’t look down.
Now that you’re standing up straight, you also want to be sure to recite out to the audience. Don’t look down at your feet. It helps to pick a point in the back of the room just slightly over the heads of the audience and look out to it rather than at the faces in the crowd. If you’re on stage you may have the benefit of bright stage lights, which means that you’ll barely be able to see your audience. But either way, be sure to look out, not down.
Oscillate while you recite.
While you’re looking out, not down, you’ll also want to turn slightly from one side of the room to the other to make sure you address everyone in the room. Think of an oscillating fan that rotates back and forth to cool off the entire room, or a water sprinkler system that rotates to spread water to all of the grass.
Get someone to spot you.
Even if you’ve memorized your material and think you know it, at times you may freeze up due to being nervous, or forget how the next part of the poem starts. Ask a friend to sit near the front of the audience with a copy of the poem so they can help prompt you with a line if you get stuck.
Don’t qualify or apologize.
Before you start, don’t try to lower your audience’s expectations by telling them how you just learned this poem and don’t know it well.
If you mess up, don’t apologize, just start the last phrase over and continue.
Messing up a poetry recitation isn’t the end of the world. Keep in mind that people want you to do well - they’re all there to support you and hear some poetry. The better your performance goes the greater the audience’s enjoyment, so remember that they want you to succeed and are happy that you’re reciting a poem for them.
And if they aren’t happy to hear your poem, then to hell with them!
Of course, these are only some basic tips. Performing well in front of an audience takes practice and experience, and for most people overcoming shyness and fear of public speaking will be the biggest stumbling blocks to overcome.
For tips on how to memorize a poem, as well as a list of suggestions for poems that are well-suited to memorization, see these related articles:
- How to Memorize a Poem
- Poems to Memorize, Recite, and Learn by Heart: For Fun, Forensics Meets, and Profit
About the Author
Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of Poetry X, an online poetry resource for those looking for poems to memorize and recite for fun, forensics meets, and profit. In his spare time he enjoys memorizing the digits of Pi to forty thousand decimal places.