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For Interpretive Reading Try a Poem

For interpretive readings, it can help to select material that lends itself to emotive reading and finding meaning in the silence between the words. Poems are a great source of emotion and silence.

I am typically an optimistic person, so for one interpretive reading, I used T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" poem, pretty much the darkest poem I could think of. It held significance for me because years ago, some military friends and often enjoyed watching the movie "Apocalypse Now!" and the character Colonel Kurtz read the poem aloud. The poem is dark, almost desperate.

Preparing to read the poem:

  • the easiest way is to convert from its current form to your word processor
  • review the poem and get a sense for its overall emotion and emotional flow
  • look for places to pause. If the piece is punctuated, it can help. Sometimes, you need to read it differently from its punctuation.
  • for poetry, you might change where the lines break to make it more readable. Sometimes a poem's visual presentation on the page might need to differ from how it is spoken
  • mark your pauses. A common way is to use slashes to indicate the pauses - / (short), // (medium), /// (long)
  • look for emotion. Emotion is in the vowels, punctuated by consonants. Emotion is in the vowels, punctuated by consonants. Emotion is in the vowels, punctuated by consonants.
  • as you read, put yourself into the emotional state of the passage, line or word and express it physically, fully. For "The Hollow Men" a state of emotional and physical exhaustion might require deeper, slower breathing, longer pauses as ideas and feelings are allowed to be absorbed and felt. The result might be less "vocal variety" and greater vocal accuracy
  • decide whether to sit, stand, or move around
  • if you decide to use a lecturn, I recommend a full-back music stand, not a table-top or full-size lectern, so that it increases your visibility. Tilt the reading surface almost flat to minimize its profile, but comfortable for your height. Click for more about lecterns.
  • is the reading aided by a prop (be very careful here)?
  • maximize the amount you look at the audience. Read ahead during the pauses, as much as you can remember, and look at the audience as you finish a line, ideally the most significant part of the line. Do NOT glance up-down for a split second at the end of lines. If you do that, you might as well not look at the audience at all.
    [As a photographer at galas and conferences, I noticed and learned that some speakers glanced up for a split second, as if to satisfy some obligation to "look at the audience," without actually acknowledging their existence by looking at them long enough to do so]

After the Toastmaster introduced me, the room lights dimmed. Our room seating was an open "U". I sat in the middle... unmoving in the darkness... in the silence. The silence grew until it was noticeable, for some perhaps uncomfortable...

..and then it began...


    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats' feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar
    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
    Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
    Remember us-if at all-not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.

Click to finish reading

The greatest difficulty I have with "The Hollow Men" is allowing myself to wade into the pool of emotions without falling in the emotional abyss and drowning, evidently in my own tears. Read it as many times as it takes to bring yourself and your voice to the edge. Look in, empathize, and stay dry.

So that you can compare and decide for yourself how the piece could be interpreted, here are a few readings of "The Hollow Men" on YouTube. Each video is preceded with the name of the reader or the YouTube channel:


Poetivity (female):

Spoken Verse (male):

IronWoodBooks (male):

The creator of this video is a teacher, John Schreiber, who took a few minutes to read it in one take and added a few interesting effects before posting. For the effort, it's outstanding!

Victor Schafer (male):

Robert Speaight (male):

Robert Speaight (male) with cinematic adaptation by Torchborne Screens

Pearls of Wisdom (female):

T.S. Eliot:

and of course, Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now!"

When I finished my reading, the traditional applause could not climb over the silence of the group. I let it rest for a moment and broke into the silence with a silly comment so we could carry on with the rest of the training session.

Coach Craig

P.S. And just for a bit o' fun, wha' abou' the 1980s/90s band The Hollow Men with their tune "White Train"?

This is the way my article ends
Not with a wimper
But with a bang

John Ucol describes his original piece as
"a healing and easy listening song..."
Can't wait to hear John's interpretation of John Donne...:


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