Scholars who write about or analyze poetry read out loud usually do so in a subjective and impressionistic way. But UC Davis experts have empirically analyzed the complexities of these vocal performances, based on pitch patterns and speed, volume, pauses, repetition and other characteristics. Now researchers are analyzing the performances of 101 African American women poets. In this episode of Unfold, we discuss why they embarked on the project and what they’ve discovered.
In this episode:
Marit MacArthur, lecturer with the UC Davis University Writing Program and faculty affiliate with the Performance Studies Graduate Group
Howard Rambsy, professor of literature, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Audio transcriptions may contain errors
Robert Frost Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler. Long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth. Then took the other as just as fair.
Amy Quinton Did you know who that was Kat?
Kat Kerlin I do. That was Robert Frost, right? Yeah, he was reading his poem The Road Not Taken or reading part of it anyway.
Amy Quinton This was the first poetry recording I ever heard back when I was in high school.
Kat Kerlin Well, it's probably one of the most read poems ever.
Amy Quinton I remember listening to this when I was living in New England, where Frost lived most of his life and I was looking out the window of my classroom on a beautiful fall day. I was surrounded by woods. It was the perfect setting to listen to it. The monotony of his voice was just hypnotic, and its slow pace made me pay attention to the words on the page.
Kat Kerlin That does sound like the perfect way to listen to that. I always used to think about that poem when walking in the snowy woods and wanting to take the road less traveled. Kind of angsty teenager, you know?
Amy Quinton Well, since then, I've heard many more poetry readings and performances, including this recent one from earlier this year. See if you recognize it.
Amanda Gorman Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true, that even as we grieved, we grew that even as we hurt, we hoped that even as we tired, we tried that will forever be tied together victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Amy Quinton No, I knew she was the youngest poet to ever read at an inauguration. The poem was called The Hill We Climb.
Kat Kerlin Yeah, that poem really resonated with a lot of people. She's now hugely popular. It's had millions of views on YouTube.
Amy Quinton For me, her poem was a sorely needed message of hope after a particularly difficult year.
Kat Kerlin Yeah, same. I mean, I remember being so impressed and almost teary eyed. I even called my daughter into the room just like, just listen to this. And it wasn't just her writing that stood out to me, but the way she read it.
Amy Quinton You mean the performance of it?
Kat Kerlin Yeah. Like, very dramatic and expressive.
Amy Quinton She set the right tone for the moment. You know, I played these two poetry readings because they are so vastly different. And I'm not just talking about the words written, but the oral presentation, the poet's voice. And when we listen to poetry read out loud, the tone of voice affects our interpretation of the words and our perceptions of the poets.
Kat Kerlin It's all fairly subjective right?
Amy Quinton Even poetry scholars who analyze poetry readings or performances can only talk about them impressionistically. Marit MacArthur with UC Davis Performance Studies Graduate Group and the UC Davis Writing Program, says that analysis can come with implicit bias.
Marit MacArthur We hear differently than other people, and we hear based on our experiences, our previous listening experiences, and we have all sorts of opinions about what we hear. But sound goes by like that. Like, what did I just hear? And if you appreciated something about the way someone spoke or delivered a poem or something you know rubbed you the wrong way, it can be hard to pin it down. Like what? What was that? What were they doing?
Amy Quinton Marit wanted to see if there was a way to more closely analyze poetry read out loud in an unbiased or at least a more objective way.
Kat Kerlin But aren't you always going to have an opinion on whether a poem was good or at least read well?
Amy Quinton Sure. But she wondered, is there a way to refine that listening experience and empirically analyze poetry performances?
Kat Kerlin Was she able to do that?
Amy Quinton Yeah, she calls it slow listening. And we're going to unfold that a bit in this episode. And we're also going to discuss her newest project that uses this process to analyze the recordings of 101 African American women poets.
Kat Kerlin So what are we calling this episode of Unfold?
Amy Quinton The Poet's Voice. Coming to you from UC Davis, this is Unfold, a podcast that breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity-driven research. I'm Amy Quinton.
Kat Kerlin And I'm Kat Kerlin. So how does Marit analyze the poet's voice or performance?
Amy Quinton You know, Kat, the voice is a complex instrument.
Kat Kerlin True.
Amy Quinton So what better way to break down complexities of such an instrument than to get together with a UC Davis neuroscientist and a linguist to come up with a way to analyze a poet's voice.
Kat Kerlin That is so UC Davis? And this is what Marit did.
Amy Quinton Yeah. So before we talk about her newest project, we have to talk about her first study. She got together with Lee Miller at the Center for Mind and Brain and Georgia Zellou, a UC Davis linguist. And together they came up with ways to more precisely define these vocal complexities of the poetry performance. And they analyzed 100 American poets.
Kat Kerlin You mean the voices of 100 American poets.
Amy Quinton Precisely.
Kat Kerlin So you mean they defined things like how to tell the poet's voice is expressive?
Amy Quinton Right. Marit says one way to do that is to look at pitch patterns, timing patterns and even the volume of a recording.
Marit MacArthur You know, you can look at their words per minute. You can look at how often they pause. You can look at how long their pauses are. If you feel like someone's more expressive, you can look at how much their pitch is changing or not. And then that might lead you to different insights.
Kat Kerlin OK, so let's talk about changing pitches or pitch patterns. What does that mean?
Amy Quinton Marit says you have to start with what it means to have no pitch change.
Marit MacArthur If I speak in a monotone, it gets very boring, very quickly, right? Because I'm just on the same tone and there's no variation to listen to, there's no emphasis. OK, so monotone would be really extreme, right?
Amy Quinton Then you can sort of gently change your pitch like up talk.
Kat Kerlin Up talk?
Amy Quinton Oh my God, Kat, up talk. It's when it sounds like I'm asking a question, but I'm not. You hear it all the time.
Kat Kerlin The emphasis or inflection is on the end of the sentence.
Amy Quinton Some people like myself find it really annoying, but apparently some think it holds your attention.
Kat Kerlin OK, stop. So that's an example of a change in pitch.
Amy Quinton Marit says a wider pitch range is also more expressive.
Marit MacArthur We measure that in octaves, so less than one octave tends to be relatively inexpressive.
Kat Kerlin Wow. It's that precise that you can measure it in octaves?
Marit MacArthur Marit says if a poet's voice sounds monotone to us, it's typically half an octave or less, so fewer notes. But she says pitch range alone isn't everything.
Marit MacArthur It's also how quickly you change your pitch. So if I say, like, what are you talking about? If I say what are you talking about? Like, that second version has a lot of kind of smear in it, and that's characterized by higher pitch acceleration, the rate of change in your pitch.
Amy Quinton She says timing and rhythmic patterns of a person's voice can also help determine if a poet is speaking more formally or conversationally.
Marit MacArthur Sometimes we expect something to sound the same rhythmically like the da da da da da da da da da da da da da. But if we are speaking a more conversational style, the rhythm is less regular and harder to anticipate.
Amy Quinton She also looks at things like repetition of words or phrases. Think of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Martin Luther King Jr. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania....
Kat Kerlin Good stuff. So he repeats "let freedom ring" at the beginning of each sentence, which adds emphasis to those words.
Amy Quinton Yeah, and Marit says a dynamic speaker will also tend to change the rhythmic patterns. Speaking more quickly and then more slowly.
Kat Kerlin Changing it up, so you don't know what's next.
Amy Quinton Exactly.
Kat Kerlin This is all very technical.
Amy Quinton I think of it like analyzing music, making observations of how many times a song changes keys or how many beats are in a measure or what instruments they're playing, or even how they're playing.
Kat Kerlin But she's not necessarily making a judgment on the performance or the poem itself.
Amy Quinton Correct? Just like musical analysis won't tell you whether a song is good or pleasing to you. It may just give you a more comprehensive picture or a more accurate listening experience.
Marit MacArthur We're definitely not trying to make judgments because somebody might feel a dynamic performance style is really appropriate in one context or for a particular poem and inappropriate for another. And another person might be like, "Oh no, you're like killing the emotion of the poem if you do it too dynamically."
Kat Kerlin You said they did this technical analysis on 100 American poets. So who did they analyze?
Amy Quinton They tried to get a representative sample of 50 men, 50 women, various ages and other demographics, but most were mainstream academic poets who have been published. And it was just examining one recording of each poet. So a lot of caveats and nuance there, but they noted a few interesting findings. One, women exhibited the most variety in performance styles.
Kat Kerlin We are gifted that way.
Amy Quinton Two, younger poets tended to read in less dynamic and expressive styles.
Kat Kerlin Interesting. That's surprising, actually.
Amy Quinton Yeah. And three...
Marit MacArthur Some of the most expensive or dynamic poets were these older African American women poets. And on the other hand, some of the least expressive, least dynamic, most neutral performances were given by some younger African American poets who were very successful in academic poetry circles and the mainstream.
Kat Kerlin So differences among African American women poets were the most profound.
Amy Quinton And she wondered why, and that curiosity led her to her next and newest project analyzing the poetry performances of 101 African American women poets.
Kat Kerlin Did she give you examples of the differences?
Amy Quinton Here's Wanda Coleman, for example. She was known as Los Angeles's unofficial poet laureate. Her voice is considered very dynamic.
Wanda Coleman I will walk the streets exuding strange hungers and happy teeth, my eyes going off like guns on strangers. I will walk with hips that are monuments, stones and boulders under which many lovers are interred. I will fight. I will fight off the night....
Kat Kerlin Wow. Oh my gosh. And I thought Amanda Gorman was expressive. That was awesome.
Natasha Tretheway Do not hang your head or clench your fists when even your friend, after hearing the story, says my mother would never put up with that. Fight the urge to rattle off statistics that more often a woman who chooses to leave is then murdered.
Kat Kerlin Hmm, that's powerful. But I'm guessing she was an example of a poet with a not very expressive voice. It wasn't completely monotone, but definitely not as expressive. But then again, her subject matter was also like, totally different.
Amy Quinton And maybe like her voice was more appropriate for the subject matter. Well, here's how Marit describes it.
Marit MacArthur You know, you can call it neutrality. You can call it a flatter way of reading. And we wanted to see, well, what is going on in African American women's poetry so that we're not oversimplifying the choices available and the choices made. But those findings just seem to suggest it would be a rich area of study because there was such a difference also generationally.
Amy Quinton Marit says she also wondered if there was a tendency in mainstream academic poetry circles to discourage expressive and dynamic performance styles, or if poets who chose to read less expressively have more mainstream success. And that struck a chord with Howard Rambsy, a professor of African American literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which is just outside St. Louis.
Howard Rambsy It felt validating because I thought my students had just been talking about this so much.
Amy Quinton Howard teaches a first-year literature class, which happens to be all African American women.
Howard Rambsy In the class of Black women, though we started listening, reading poetry, but then we started listening more and more to poems read by poets, particularly Black women poets. And we just started noticing the differences and how they sounded. The young women students would make a critique saying some sounded boring. Some were more exciting and dynamic.
Amy Quinton Howard has extensive knowledge of African American poets and so teamed up with Marit to complete this new study.
Howard Rambsy One of the luxuries I have is being in a classroom with all young Black women. I mean the voices in there are just so dynamic but it's also a luxury because usually I think when you teach in an American lit class, sometimes you have your kind of required, I think, to talk about white poets, Black poets, Asian poets so you really never get to talk about differences between Black poets and Black voices and, in this case, between Black women and Black women.
Kat Kerlin Amy, Marit said she didn't want to oversimplify her findings about Black women poets from her first study and the different choices that they make in their voicing and their performance. What did she mean by that?
Amy Quinton A couple of things. She says when minority or women writers are studied within a larger group of mostly white male writers, those women can be taken to stand for certain performance styles, as if those styles are related to race or gender, rather than other factors.
Marit MacArthur When we're teaching literature, so many comparisons unfortunately lead in the direction of like, well, white poets read this way. Black poets read that way. Well, that's just so simplistic, you know? And it's like we can capture somebody's identity by checking a box for the census or something. There are so many things. There is educational background. There's aesthetic affiliation. There's age. There's religion. There's audience, you know, because poets can differ according to audience, too.
Kat Kerlin So she wanted to further her study to make sure her analysis was more nuanced,
Amy Quinton And her first study also looked only at one recording of each poet, which is limiting. And it focused primarily on mainstream academic poets, which she says tends to skew white.
Kat Kerlin And not all poets are academic poets. There are also Spoken Word poets.
Amy Quinton Very good point.
Kat Kerlin Maybe we should talk about the differences, because when I think of an academic poetry reading, I think of someone reading at a podium book in hand, usually like a university or a bookstore.
Amy Quinton Yeah, where it's deathly quiet. Spoken Word can be quite different, at the very least in terms of venue. It's really intended for performance. There is sometimes rhyme, rhythm, repetition. It can be theatrical. Howard pointed to Jae Nichelle as an example. This is her reading Friends with Benefits, which is about her anxiety. She read it during a poetry slam competition and it's now up on YouTube.
Jae Nichelle She is constantly reminding me of how easy I am to crush. As I speak, I am pushing against her weight on my shoulders, and that is why I shake. Sometimes I have to fight to stand up straight. Stop rocking. She and I picked out this outfit together, something that dries fast if I am sweating.
Howard Rambsy It is a poetry, I guess it's a poetry reading, but it's also more like a dramatic monologue. It has humor in it. She changes the pace. She pauses at moments. She moves around when she's delivering it. So I think that's why it is by far the most popular poem that my students cover now.
Kat Kerlin Yeah, it's definitely more like a performance, like a play and very relatable. And just watching her, really expressive. And I notice that this has had more than 1.5 million views on YouTube.
Amy Quinton Her poetry has had more than 50 million views on Facebook. One of the goals of this research was to be more inclusive. And since the first study looked primarily at academic poets, they wanted to expand their analysis to include more Spoken Word poets.
Kat Kerlin So Jae Nichelle was part of their analysis.
Amy Quinton Yeah. Here's how Marit analyzes it.
Marit MacArthur At moments when she is speaking lines that are more about anxiety, about feeling anxious, her pitch is higher and it's in a narrower range and she talks faster. And then when she's performing calmness, her pitch gets a little bit lower and her speaking pace or tempo gets slower, right? So, you know, those are just two, you know, performance choices that really lend to the drama of the poem.
Kat Kerlin I can see how the technical analysis provides more insight. It's almost like her vocal performance is mimicking anxiety. You said Marit's first study looked primarily at academic poets, but it also only analyzed one reading or recording right? So are they doing more for this study?
Amy Quinton They're looking at two recordings, and there's many reasons to do this. One, our voices change over time. As women age, their voices tend to get deeper. When men age, their voices tend to get higher,
Kat Kerlin Really? I didn't know that.
Amy Quinton She pointed to Amanda Gorman, who had also performed Spoken Word poetry. We heard her at the beginning of the episode. Now, listen to her a few years earlier. This is from her poem Neighborhood Anthem.
Amanda Gorman I sing a neighborhood anthem for the silenced. The sixth-grade students my mother teaches in a Watts public school. I hope for the misunderstood. These students who respond to the essay question, "What stresses you out?" With hushed tales of sisters killed and mother's scraping along the poverty line with nails jagging from impending defeat. I dream.
Kat Kerlin Yes, she sounds completely different and her voice is much higher. Of course, she's also much younger.
Amy Quinton Yeah, she's also much more animated if you watch it on YouTube. Here's what Marit says about her reading.
Marit MacArthur So when she read that poem, her average pitch was 263 Hertz, which is high-ish for a young woman, and then her pitch range in octaves was 1.2. But then, when she read The Hill We Climb at the Biden's inauguration, her average pitch was 204, a lot lower than 263.
Amy Quinton Her pitch range at the inauguration was also wider at one and a half octaves. Marit says women often lower their voice to sound more authoritative and to be taken more seriously.
Kat Kerlin I guess you would want to sound more authoritative and be taken seriously at a presidential inauguration.
Amy Quinton Venue can matter a great deal. A performance style may change if you're in a more formal setting versus a more casual setting or theater. This is one of the reasons they needed more than one recording,
Kat Kerlin So Amanda Gorman and Jae Nichelle were some of the poets they analyzed. Who else?
Amy Quinton Another was Mahogany Brown. Have you heard of her?
Kat Kerlin No.
Amy Quinton This is another favorite of Howard's Black women undergraduates and I think you'll hear why. She's an award-winning performance poet and author, and one of her poems is called Black Girl Magic.
Mahogany Browne They say you ain't 'posed to be here, Black girl. You ain't 'posed to wear red lipstick. You ain't 'posed to wear high heels. You ain't posed to smile in public. You ain't posed to smile nowhere, Black girl. You ain't supposed to be no more than a girlfriend. You ain't supposed to get married. You ain't supposed to want no dream that big. You ain't supposed to dream at all. You ain't supposed to do nothing but carry babies and carry felonies and carry weaves and carry silence and carry families and carry confusion and carry a nation, but never an opinion. Cause you ain’t supposed to have nothing to say Black girl not unless it’s a joke. Cause you ain’t supposed to love yourself Black girl.
Amy Quinton So I found that really powerful. It addresses all these harmful stereotypes that can affect young Black women and their self-image.
Kat Kerlin And she's very direct about it. In the video we're watching on YouTube, she's looking right at the camera and she's memorized the poem.
Marit MacArthur It's powerful partly because it is direct address, right? It also uses a lot of repetition or anaphora, and that just means like repeating the same opening phrase at the beginning of a line.
Kat Kerlin So kind of like the Martin Luther King Jr's, I Have a Dream speech.
Amy Quinton Yeah, the poem then moves in a different direction at the end and uses anaphora for that too.
Mahogany Browne You are a Black girl worth remembering and you are a threat knowing yourself. You are a threat loving yourself. You are a threat, loving your kin. You are a threat loving your children, you Black girl magic, you Black girl fly, you Black girl brilliant, you Black girl wonder, you Black girl shine, you Black girl, bloom, you Black girl, Black girl. And you turning into a beautiful Black woman right before our eyes.
Amy Quinton Howard says her directness, speaking to the audience, is part of the performative style of Spoken Word, which he says is very different than academic poetry readings.
Howard Rambsy Well, one thing you can hear among some of the more accomplished academic poets and I'm thinking white and Black. They're very big about saying, "Hey, you can't, you know, you never write for an audience. Like, you don't pay attention to audience when you're writing." That's like a kind of mantra they have. And that's something the Spoken Word artists don't believe. In fact, you can tell some Spoken Word artists have thought about when they say a very jarring line, because they will know to pause and let the audience clap or respond or shout out. So, yeah, but no, I do think it's a clear, a clear kind of a disconnect between the two and sometimes really hard feelings.
Kat Kerlin Really hard feelings?
Amy Quinton Yeah. Howard says he feels like Spoken Word poetry isn't as valued in some circles.
Howard Rambsy My point of Spoken Word is I worry about Spoken Word a lot, that it doesn't get the attention, scholarly support or considerations that lots of other poets do even though I feel that it's the one that is most connected to at least large numbers of like the Black women students I work with. So they view this as very this very much a space that's safe and useful and helpful for Black people and in their case of Black women. But that's not the case in these other realms of poetry.
Amy Quinton There's been a longstanding conflict between the page and the stage. Marit says some people think the text matters more, and if you pay too much attention to the performance, then your poem doesn't stand up on the page.
Kat Kerlin Well, perhaps Amanda Gorman is changing that perception. Or maybe folks just need to listen to Mahogany Browne.
Amy Quinton Well, here's what Marit says about this conflict.
Marit MacArthur One thing I hope our project does, you know, along with call attention to a lot of great Spoken Word artists who aren’t getting the attention they deserve is, you know, just show the variety and range of performance styles out there because no one should have to feel like they have to be an amazing actress to succeed as a poet. And if someone is an amazing actress or interpreter of her poems, that doesn't mean they aren't also very good poems.
Amy Quinton In fact, I read an article about this where Jae Nichelle says the two really shouldn't be separated, since a poem can have just as much impact spoken out loud as it does on the page.
Kat Kerlin Amy, are they finding certain themes or conclusions that they can draw about their analysis of 101 Black women poets?
Amy Quinton Well, a few things, some of which we've kind of described already. A Spoken Word performance style, which was developed among Black women poets in venues where the audience participates, is marked by higher pitch and possibly by faster pitch speed or perceptible changes in pitch and recordings from participatory venues possibly have a faster intensity speed.
Kat Kerlin What does that mean, a faster intensity speed?
Amy Quinton It means more perceptible changes in volume like we hear with hello or hello versus hello.
Kat Kerlin So basically, you're saying Spoken Word is more animated and emotional then? Or more expressive?
Amy Quinton Yeah. And Howard pointed out in this study that it's also a style that developed among mainly Black audiences because the audience response with the poet is similar to the participatory norms in the Black church, for example.
Kat Kerlin So are the Spoken Word poets more likely to use their voice this way in front of Black audiences?
Amy Quinton Well, maybe. It also could be that if you're in a relatively noisy space, like a stage where there's audience participation, which is typical in Spoken Word poetry slams, poets may just alter their pitch, volume or speed sort of half consciously to improve listener comprehension. But these audiences don't talk over Spoken Word poets. It's more of a call and response style, with some overlapping applause and laughter.
Kat Kerlin OK, so what else did they find?
Amy Quinton The other interesting finding seems to be that the younger the poet, the less dynamic and expressive pitch the poet uses,
Kat Kerlin And that is true of Spoken Word poets and academic poets?
Amy Quinton Yeah, and it's true independent of venue or audience type.
Kat Kerlin Did they give a reason why that might be?
Amy Quinton Well, it may suggest a trend away from expressive voice styles developed among mainly Black audiences. It may also mean that the more neutral, flatter voicing that dominates academic poetry readings is influencing Black women poets as well, who may sometimes feel that a neutral style is sort of a condition of acceptance in academic circles. And that kind of also coincides with Marit's earlier research that shows the same trend among all the women poets she analyzed whether Black, white or Latinx.
Kat Kerlin Interesting. We do socially monitor ourselves. And that is something that is worth further study. If you want to learn more about Marit and Howard's work, the poetry you've heard in this episode of Unfold and find more episodes, you can visit our website at ucdavis.edu/unfold. I'm Kat Kerlin.
Amy Quinton And I'm Amy Quinton. Thanks for listening. Unfold is a production of UC Davis. It's produced by Cody Drabble. Original music for Unfold comes from Damien Verrett and Curtis Jerome Haynes. If you like this podcast, check out UC Davis's other podcast, The Backdrop. It's a monthly interview program featuring conversations with UC Davis scholars and researchers working in the social sciences, humanities, arts and culture. Hosted by a public radio veteran Soterios Johnson, the conversations feature new work and expertise on a trending topic in the news. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.