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How to Read Poetic Copy Poetically

Edge Studio

Poetry-reading is not a major voice over genre. But any number of genres, from audiobooks to commercials, involve poetry, or poetic language. For example, a rather poetic speech about poetry, by Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society,” was recently used in Apple commercials. And if you are asked to read a passage from Shakespeare, you’ll want to do it justice poetically.

So, how do you read a poem?

Ever heard a poet read his or her own poetry? In most cases (based on our unofficial, unscientific recollection), the author will not change from his or her own voice. The same is true of award-winning reciters of poetry. As in voice over work, a major part of the task is to sound natural, yet articulate and with energy, so that the reading will be easily understood and maintain interest.

Yet, there is no one way to read poetry. Even authorities such as the Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress seem to disagree a bit on some advice. (The emphasis below is ours.)

The Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Out Loud national contest for students advises:

Proceed at a fitting and natural pace. Avoid nervously rushing through the poem. Do not speak so slowly that the language sounds unnatural or awkward or to create a false sense of drama.[]

Whereas, the Library of Congress advises students:

 Read the poem slowly. Most adolescents speak rapidly, and a nervous reader will tend to do the same in order to get the reading over with. Reading a poem slowly is the best way to ensure that the poem will be read clearly and understood by its listeners. []

Here’s a list of considerations that generally apply:

And here’s a collection of readings and short thoughts by distinguished actors and poets, including examples of how varying the emotion varies the effect: []

  • Love the words. They are what poetry is about. Speak them distinctly, enunciate, cherish their sounds and make them rich. This is a situation where some level of exaggeration might even be appropriate – a rarity in the VO world. Even when the subject matter is dead serious, you might play with the words.
  • Understand and express the ideas. They, too, make poems poetic. Remember what you’ve learned about emotional progression in voice over scripts – that each thought follows from the one before it, but has a different emotion to it, since it’s not the same thought as the one before it.
  • Similarly, remember that “acting” is also “reacting.” A line often constitutes a reaction to lines that preceded. There’s a clue as to the next lines’ reading.
  • Pause appropriately at punctuation, not necessarily at the end of every line. Opinions differ on this, but pausing so regularly tends to create a monotonous, unnatural, even laughable sing-song effect, especially when line endings rhyme.
  • Watch out for double meanings. Poets have fun with them, and your choice of pronunciation may make all the difference. Also note other rhetorical devices, such as alliteration and rhythm.
  • Vary your speed as appropriate. This is one of the few genres where a dramatic pause might even be good to use. (In most voice over work, an obvious dramatic pause often sounds trite, choppy or confusing.)
  • As with almost any VO genre, use body language — especially your hands and arms. Use simple, natural movements. But as with other VO work, maintain a constant distance and position between your mouth and the mic, and don’t wear noisy clothing.
  • As with any voice over job, read the poem and understand it before you begin recording. And, as with any copy, mark it up.
  • Is the subject matter remote from your own experience? To effectively convey emotion, try to identify a situation (or situations) where you felt what the poem is getting at. You may never have built a fence, but you (like everyone) have had various sorts of neighbors.
  • Many people who love poems enjoy knowing them by heart. In a voice over reading, of course you don’t have to memorize the script. But it can help to be a bit more familiar with poetic lines than you might usually be with a script. It will help you speak an unnatural assemblage of words more naturally.
  • Should you use the author’s pronunciation, or yours? For example, if you’re speaking in standard American English, and you encounter the word “again” and it is obviously meant to rhyme with “rain,” should you say “agGEN” or “agGAYN”? If that’s the only such instance, consider saying it as you normally would. After all, the sense of the poem is the more important factor, and a sudden affectation could be distracting. But if you’re Canadian, you might sound mostly Midwestern U.S., yet the British pronunciation would be natural to you. Or you might even shade the U.S. pronunciation almost imperceptibly, by breaking the diphthong (two vowels pronounced as one syllable) slightly into two syllables (as some US Southerners do), saying “REH-in” and “agGEH-in. Just don’t over-do it.
  • If a script is not a poem, not even drivel in a poetic form, it can still sound poetic. Use your poetry-reading practice, and deliver the script based on whatever meaning and emotions you want your character to communicate to the listener. Even if it’s a script where there is no “character” per se, this mindset can work for you. You are the character. You are the poet. You are the source of the emotions. And you have the words to express them.

Not planning to encounter poetry at all? It’s nevertheless good practice, and can be a challenging cold read. Have a go at this poem, The Chaos [of Pronunciations in English], a poem by Gerard N. Trenité. It doesn’t make much sense, but it reads like a George Carlin routine. Originally published in 1920 with rhymes based on the author’s English accent, it was enlarged over the years, so that one version runs 274 lines. A 112-line version is one of the thousands of scripts in Edge Studio’s Practice Library.