Poetry aloud, spoken poetry, whether it's read out or memorised, is a shared activity, even if you're only sharing it with yourself. It's a performance that necessarily joins the person speaking to the person listening and in the process it highlights the separateness of the thing that's being spoken. In this way, the voicing of the words is an activity that reinforces poetry as a cultural value; and it also gives an added appreciation of the made-upness, the sheer art, of individual poems.
"What's poetry," Derek Walcott asks in his poem ‘Forest of Europe', "What's poetry, if it is worth its salt / but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?"
In my own case, some of the poems that made the strongest impression on me and have stayed with me for a lifetime were memorable precisely because they were spoken aloud in the first place. Many of these experiences involved people reading from a text, many others involved people quoting poems by heart, but in ewach case it was the oral and aural dimensions of the experience that gave it such permanent effect.
I'm talking here about encounters with poetry that happened in the classroom, the lecture room and later on in the living rooms of other poets, when the poems involved were mostly from the literary canon. But before that, there was a period when verse of an unofficial sort was absorbed entirely un-selfconsciously, when the ear attuned itself unthinkingly to what James Joyce called ‘the rite words in the rote order', to the speech of Northern Ireland rigged and jigged and rhymed for effect, the kind of flotsam and jetsam that blows in one ear and out the other in every childhood, but that finally ends up lodged between the ears of the adult. Things like:
The praties are boiling
And that's a fine joke
For the herrings they're coming
In Doherty's boat.
My granny was Doherty,
She was the stuff.
She hunted the Orangemen
Too late, too late, shall be the cry,
The Bellaghy bus goes sailing by.
I wouldn't have thought of such things as poetry at the time, but now I do. That granny in pursuit of the Orangemen both takes in and takes on the reality of sectarian Ulster, and by the merriment of the rhythm and the pertness of the rhyme, the four lines about her tend to mitigate the noxiousness of the sectarian world they respond to. Like all true poetry, they are part of the solution, not part of the problem, part of the immunity system rather than part of the infection. They are a proof, given at the very first level of the poetic operation, of just how effective the rite words in the rote order can be.