|C. Liegh McInnis reading his poem "The Bridge"|
Last June, just as I was giving thought to the pace of poets reading, C. Liegh McInnis sent a mass email to a group of us with a link to his reading of his poem, "The Bridge (for Medgar at the Crossroads). He had read the poem on June 12, 2018, at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The event was commemorating the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Evers.
I tucked the poem away but finally got some time to start thinking more about McInnis and the pace or speed of various other poets reading their works. I want to note off the top that pace is just one of many aspects of a poet's delivery style. Just because some poets reads faster or slower than others doesn't signal that some are more or less valuable than others.
Still, I've been intrigued by poets who read quicker than the speed of conversational speech, which is between 120 to 150 words per minute (wpm), according to various sources. McInnis reads his poem "The Bridge," which contains 649* words, at about 162 wpm. That is to say, he's uttering words faster than the speed of an average conversation.
There's more to say about his dynamism, voice inflections, allusions, wordplay, hand movements, and so forth, which I'll take up at a later time. But for now, I wanted to note that his pace is also important because his delivery style corresponds to a kind of speech-making. Interestingly though, people delivering speeches or presentations tend to move slower, or at least are advised to move slower than how they might speak during conversations. So McInnis is interestingly combining aspects of a speech with the rapid pace of a poem. Those combined elements, I'd say, contribute to why members of his audience were moved to give him a standing ovation at the end.
I was curious about McInnis's wpm in relation to poems by two dozen other poets. (Click here to see a selection of poems arranged by wpm). McInnis joins Mahogany L. Browne, Amiri Baraka, Etheridge Knight, and June Jordan as some of the faster readers, at least among the sample that I am working with at the moment. It's really fascinating to consider the speed of readings by Baraka, Jordan, and McInnis in poems over 600 words. Keeping up the paces that they do in poems with that many words requires some skill and endurance.
* My text of the poem slightly differs from his reading toward the end. So the 649 is an approximation, but fairly close.
• Amiri Baraka's "Dope" in the context of rap freestyle
• A selection of poems by words per minute
• A notebook on C. Liegh McInnis