Radio killed the poetry star?

What killed recitation as a popular art? In The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore, Keith McKenry blames the new media technologies ‘combined with normal social change’ for the decline of recitation from the 1920s.[40] If this is true, it is not simply true, as radio arguably brought new opportunities for extending poetry as entertainment across the airwaves. The ABC’s John Thompson, who himself fostered such hopes through programs such as Quality Street, quoted the English poet D. G. Bridson, who in 1950 believed that there was ‘every reason to class the invention of the microphone with those of writing and the printing press’. By 1966, however, as Thompson ruefully remarked, ‘Bridson’s hopes [had] hardly been fulfilled’.[41] What had happened?

Firstly, as Les Murray observed, poetic culture began to bifurcate under the impact of modernism, with its emphasis on a less public, more intimate voice modulated in free verse. Designed to be sounded mentally rather than spoken out loud, modernist verse was tailored to an audience of individual readers, not gatherings of auditors. Fuelling this shift in attitude was the fact that elocutionary techniques did not transfer well to the electronic media. The informal kind of voice required for radio was precisely the opposite needed for histrionic declamation in large, draughty halls and theatres, and, as listeners became quickly habituated to the paradoxical intimacy of public broadcasting, the former advantages of elocutionary training became liabilities. In this process, the mnemonic and incantatory effects of traditional metres were downgraded, becoming associated with complacent and conservative social attitudes—what George Orwell, in a famous critique of Kipling, called ‘good bad poetry’.[42]

Secondly, recitation was strongly associated with the artificiality of elocution, and therefore suffered by association when performance fashions turned against it. Elocution always had a problematic relationship with ‘nature’. In their attempt to reform the common vices of static or unanimated oratory, the eighteenth-century pioneers of elocution had endeavoured to develop a universal grammar of emotion linked to bodily gesture: ‘[N]ature has given to every emotion of the mind its proper outward expression,’ wrote James Burgh, author of The Art of Speaking (1762).[43] Not surprisingly, as the elocutionary movement burgeoned during the nineteenth century in a host of manuals illustrating recommended poses and hand movements, this simple idea became rigidly codified. As Frederick William Haberman has written: ‘The inevitable result of this conception of natural determinism in emotional expression is the degeneration of the philosophy of delivery into a study of symbolical expression, or formalized action, of regulated postures, of designated maneuvers [sic].’[44] In a version of Bell’s Standard Elocutionist republished as late as 1938, the reader is told ‘that gesture must appear spontaneous, must seem to rise, as a result of unstudied impulse, from the words which are being spoken’.[45] Yet two pages later, under the heading ‘Full Gesture’, we are told:

Every accentual action should be preceded by a prepatory movement in the opposite direction to where the movement will end, the gesture needing somewhere to move from.

As a general principle, either the upper side (the thumb), or the back of the hand, should be turned in the direction of the gesture in upward motions; and the lower side, or the palm of the hand, in downward motions.

The feet should preserve a uniform angle of separation in every motion, the toes being turned outwards to an angle of not more than 75 degrees.[46]

So much for spontaneity! Haberman argues that, as a product of Enlightenment scientism, elocution was always mechanistic in its approach, even though its originators saw themselves as merely following natural precepts: ‘Implicit in the minds of the elocutionists was the sense of a mechanical order in nature. Thus they could claim that their rules and their systems represented the order that is found in nature; they were “nature still, but nature methodized”.’[47]

Even before radio, in the theatre, the advent of naturalism in the late nineteenth century started to give the histrionics of elocutionary training a bad name—a situation, as Kenneth Pickering notes, ‘greatly complicated by the large numbers of amateur performers trying to teach themselves the socially desirable skill of recitation’.[48] Writing on ‘The elocutionist and the actor’ in Theatre Magazine in 1913, Lawrence Campbell commented:

If one thing more than another has helped to bring the elocutionary profession into disrepute it is the failure on the part of the majority of interpreters, both professional and amateur, to realise the limitations of their art—a failure which has lead [sic] to an excessive and exaggerated form of action and impersonation as artificial and unconvincing as it is strenuous and inartistic.[49]

To take just one example, for 20 years until his death in 1950, an eccentric known only as The Tiger, or the Tangalooma Tiger, and describing himself as ‘a full-blooded elocutionist’, drew substantial crowds to his recitations of Henry Lawson and Shelley at the Sydney Domain.[50]

Recitation and elocution were at last parting company, and if elocution itself was changing it was a little too late to save its name. Mark Morrisson describes the emergence of a ‘new elocution’ in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century that valued restraint and a lack of theatrical effects, emphasising the reciter’s role in bringing forth the latent ‘pure voice’ of the poem itself. He quotes Lady Margaret Sackville, whose inaugural address to the Poetry Society in 1912 advised that ‘[t]here should be no striving from outside to produce a definite effect—the soul of the interpreter should be so possessed by the poem that it follows it instinctively in every modulation and inflection as easily as water flowing between winding banks’.[51] Though the new elocutionists were literary conservatives, Morrisson argues that their stress on unadorned performance—the purely oral over the visual and dramatic—was a powerful influence on early modernist poetry’s desire to break free of Victorian mannerisms and, in T. S. Eliot’s words, ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’.

In the Australian context, these ideas are implicit in the comments of one elocutionist, who told readers of the Age in 1938: ‘The word “elocution” is associated in the minds of most people with recitations, or as some artificial manner of speech. This is easily understood, because in schools and academies reciting is the only medium through which elocution is taught.’[52]

True elocution, the writer believed, was simply the art of speaking clearly so as to fully articulate the sound of the words. The year before, in Australian Musical News, an ‘Examiner in Elocution’ similarly insisted: ‘Audibility, good vocal tone, rhythmic flow, naturalness, and sincerity, coupled with understanding and feeling, are, in short, the essentials of good verse speaking, and the lack of these qualities can never be compensated for by artificial expression or the theatrical methods dear to the elocutionists of the past.’[53]

In her history of early Australian radio, Lesley Johnson has described the evolving style of presentation from the 1920s, when ‘advertisements for new programmes occasionally mentioned that the announcer was a “fine elocutionist”’, to the 1930s, when radio ‘personalities’, noted for their intimate, friendly manner, started to come into their own.[54] In the 1950s, when the career of radio superstar and sometime poet John Laws was just beginning, one Western Victorian reciter gave up performing because he felt that he and his fellows were now regarded as ‘bits of fools’.[55] Radio thus helped kill the wild reciter, not simply by offering alternative entertainment, but by finally dispensing with the last vestiges of an elocutionary ethos that had sustained the art of recitation for more than a century. Elocution flourished on the stage and in the public readings and recitals of early industrial society, but the new audiences so formed would become the basis of a modern mass culture that has so far proved mostly unfriendly to poetry.