Hunting the Wild Reciter: Elocution and the Art of Recitation

Article excerpt

In the early 1990s I reluctantly accompanied my mother to an Australian folk music concert at a local RSL. Unusual for someone of her generation whose LP collection favoured crooners such as Al Martino and Barry Crocker, she was keen to hear the Bushwhackers live--perhaps it had something to do with leaving Coonabarabran at an impressionable age. When I found out that the warm-up act was Leonard Teale reciting poems by 'Banjo' Paterson my disaffection was complete. Yet Teale proved mesmerising, especially in that most over-exposed of all bush ballads, 'The man from Snowy River'. He held us with his glittering eye, and for five minutes I was as one with the club audience following that famous stripling on his small and weedy beast as 'he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed'. The metaphorical union of man and horse with landscape sang to me as never before.

Given the endurance of bush poetry festivals, and the occasional popularity of contemporary spoken word and performance poetry, clearly there is still an audience willing to be moved by live verse in Australia, but it's a minority taste. These days even an act such as Teale's is rare. Outside of tiny urban folk clubs, bush poetry is a distinctly regional phenomenon. Performance poetry, on the other hand, despite its often populist ambitions, is typically the reserve of inner-city cliques. In the 1920s, however, Australians were reciting verse all over the place--so much so that the humorist 'Kodak' O'Ferrall lampooned them:

   Way out in the suburbs howls the wild Reciter,
   Storming like a general, bragging like a blighter;
   He would shame hyenas slinking in their dens
   As he roars at peaceful folk whose joy is keeping hens.
   'How We Beat the Favourite,' 'Lasca,' 'Gunga Din,'
   There they sit and tremble as he rubs it in.
   When he's done they thank him! Never do they rise,
   Tie his hands and gag him as he rolls his eyes,
   Bag his head and bear him swiftly through the night.
   That's the only remedy for villains who recite. (1)

Here, from the modern, metropolitan perspective of the professional writer, the reciter is an outlandish form of Homo suburbiensis. An amateur with half-baked literary taste, his choice of party pieces is quaintly Victorian, comprising narrative ballads from Adam Lindsay Gordon to Rudyard Kipling, and including 'Lasca' by the Englishman Frank Desprez, in which a Texan cowboy laments the death of his Mexican sweetheart in a cattle stampede.

To serve this market, a range of 'reciters'--anthologies of poems and other texts for performance--were in constant publication until the middle of the twentieth century. Kingsley Amis in his introduction to The Faber Popular Reciter of 1978--a nostalgic collection, and among the very last of its kind--observed:

   When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War, the majority of
   the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting.
   If they were not in one anthology they were in a couple of others;
   they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as
   turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or
   on other public occasions. (2)

Kodak's satirical portrait, too, suggests that recitation drew upon a popular canon of frequently heard poems. Hardly surprising, therefore, that, as his star began to wane, the wild reciter could be mistaken for the last vestige of an age-old folk art--especially when the cultural forces which sustained him also fell into disfavour.

Recitation, based on a printed source, can in this way feed the invention of folklore. In their quest for an imagined community unmediated by commercial mass entertainment, folklorists are keen to assert a continuity in 'living' popular traditions, emphasising historical links between pre-modern and industrial cultures in ways that often override significant ruptures. For this reason, Australian folklorists' accounts of recitation can be vague, to say the least. …