Dark stuff

December 20, 2011 § 11 Comments

Thinking of how poetry exists at once on the page and in the air, I’m wondering about why it seems to be necessary for a poetry reading to offer something different to our experience of it on the page.  We call both activities ‘reading’: but when a poet reads their work to/for us, this is generally a very different thing to sitting down with a book.

Well of course, it is different.  For one thing, poetry readings generally involve an audience of more than one (though many of us have been pretty close to that…) – and this relationship does require some kind of acknowledgement.

Or does it?  When a people go along to listen to a poet whose work they like, what do they want?  Is it to hear the poetry they like read by the voice that formed it?  Or is it some kind of social event, which requires certain conventions to be observed?

It appears to be both.  We do go to hear the poet speak the words from the page; but we are involved in a group dynamic, to which we and the poet are all subject: if ‘we’ are an audience, then the poet becomes the entertainer.

This has consequences not only for how the poet presents the work – the hello, the preamble, the quip – but also what work is chosen.  People might enjoy a poet’s work for its unflinching exploration of dark and bitter experience; but even if that’s what they want to hear, either they want it leavened with the odd celebration; or the poet, looking out at the silent faces, thinks they do.  ‘They’ve paid to get here (even if it’s just bus fare) and I’m grateful.  So here’s the one about the cat…’

For some poets this is a bit of a shame.  Despite the focus in their work on ‘dark’ stuff – and the fact that people have come along to hear them because they like what they have read – there is still this tendency to ‘lighten’ the programme (often wrily).  Peter Sansom once wrote, hilariously, that a limerick wouldn’t start ‘There once was my father who died’: and clearly, poetry has its own conventions.  But when a poet’s strength lies in the raw stuff, he should be encouraged to read it in public – however unsettling this might be.


§ 11 Responses to Dark stuff

  • Carolyn says:

    It’s a bit like the stories about blackbirds nesting in traffic lights you get at the end of the evening news now – even on the BBC. Personally, it really annoys me …

    Very much like the design of the site, Rob (I’m a fan of old maps) – look forward to more posts.

    • Rob Hindle says:

      Thanks Carolyn. The map has a bit of Neepsend and a bit of Attercliffe, so takes in the Sheffield Flood and Spence Broughton’s gibbet. (You can see the rationale behind the post, then!)

  • Matt says:


    I’ve never felt clear what audience members want from poetry readings. There seem to be so many motives that have nothing directly to do with the ‘performance’ at all: networking, self-promotion and general scene maneuvering; a sense of duty to support poets and poetry events; returning a compliment; or even just catching up with friends.

    Audiences are hard to read or second guess. You make a joke. People laugh. How do you know when your performance of a poem has stirred, challenged or aroused someone? How do you know if it’s even held their attention to the end? Being engaged and being bored sound the same. They often look the same too, as any teacher can tell you.

    What am I after from a ‘reading’? The music and rhythm of the words. The energy and intensity of thought or feeling. I want to hear expressed, or redressed, what’s impossible to articulate in any other context. Mostly, I want to hear the pitch and tone of the human voice breathed into the poem. Charm, clever patter, the odd funny can be diverting; but they’re not the meat for me.


    • Rob Hindle says:


      I think you’re right to focus on what you, personally, look for from a ‘reading’ (and I’m interested in those inverted commas, too: are you referring to the fact that it is more than that – the vocative quality of ‘the human voice breathed into the poem’? Or the idea of the event as a performance, which might involve all manner of other things and produce a very different effect from that of reading poems from a page?).

      Your emphasis on the tonal, the musical, the rhythm of the uttered words brings us back to the aural process of creating poetry – Auden’s memorable speech. Perhaps the function of the other elements of a reading – when well-judged – are to create and sustain the conditions in which people are most responsive to the intensity of poetry.

  • Matt says:

    Yes, that’s it exactly – ‘creating the conditions…’ How often are poets working in conditions that interfere with the transmition? It seems to me that poetry needs even more controlled conditions than theatre – and yet so often poets manage without sympathetic lighting, acoustics or simple event management.

    I don’t want to sound precious, but the gurgling coffee machine, the opening and closing door, the pub-quiz from downstairs…

    • Rob Hindle says:

      I posted earlier (‘Dark Side of the Moon’) about an Event in October when poets were competing with the vagaries of Skype… The most challenging ‘noises off’, though, were interruptions in the form of Windows signatures. I had to pause in my reading, following one such da.da.dah.dah.dah, with a quip. Given that I’d chosen to read a sequence about Lorca’s execution, it was a difficult judgement: do we break the (already impaired) tension to acknowledge the interruption – or read on, knowing that most of the audience is focusing on the musak-Morse sitting in their inner ears like Banquo’s inebriate ghost?

  • Brian Lewis says:

    The infrastructure on which poetry readings commonly depend is often either makeshift (the creaky, thin-walled pub room) or inimical to intimacy (the echoing lecture hall). I suspect that the anxiety that many poets feel when programming a reading is, on some level, an acknowledgement of the limitations of the space, rather than the limitations of the audience. Even ‘lighter’ material will fail to connect if the voice delivering it is only intermittently audible. Poetry is, among art forms, unusually vulnerable to ‘noise’: the speaker’s nuance and the listener’s attention is all, and if the conditions don’t allow this bond to form, or cause it to be broken, then little of value will be created.

    Interestingly, among the most effective and memorable connections between poet and audience that I’ve observed over the last few years have taken place out of doors. My involvement in these events might leave me open to charges of bias, but the poetry walks that took place in Sheffield in 2008-2011 were unique in that they allowed the poem to move into the world, and the world to move into the poem: what would be received as vexing interruption in the confines of a creaky room (traffic noise, children’s laughter, etc) was merely the walk’s ambience (and the poem’s), and didn’t break the concentration. The relationship between the poem and the environment was apparent but unforced. Audiences seemed much more alert during these events; they also seemed more directly and naturally engaged. Reading poems at intervals (and then walking on to the next ‘stop’) allowed audiences to digest and reflect on the work they’d heard (rather than having to absorb 20 minutes of unfamiliar work without pause or explanation), and encouraged a natural conversation en route between poet and audience (and within the audience).

    Obviously, not every poetry event can (or should) be modelled on a poetry walk, and (my comments above notwithstanding) I still feel that there’s much of value that can be achieved in the creaky pub room. I’ve yet to find a space that’s ‘ideal’ for poetry; the challenge is to understand and make best use of that space, however limited.

    • Rob Hindle says:


      This is interesting. Perhaps a walk event (this is certainly my experience) is more open to the incorporation of noise etc because the poetry itself has been generated out of a response to the same material. As a result, it might be said that such events create new work themselves – with the active participation / contribution of the audience in that process.

      This situationist approach tends to contrast with the ‘standard’ reading event, which involves the audience in something akin to the suspension of disbelief required of a theatre audience or a reader of fiction (and it is interesting that Brechtian approaches to theatre, for example, seek to question the audience/drama relationship be engaging audiences directly).

    • Matt says:

      I think one thing that can be controlled is event management. Many distracting off-stage noises could be dealt with if someone took responsibility or could be bothered to explain why it isn’t a good thing if the poet is trying to compete against a room-full of people carrying on conversations amongst themselves…

      In an enclosed space, atmosphere is everything.

      Is this what you mean by ‘making best use of a space’ Brian?

      I’ve yet to come up with a plan for making best use of a load of people rabitting away in the background.

      I mean, this happens even when you might imagine the ‘host’ is sympathetic to arts events.

      Spoken word events simply need management, and sometimes tough, assertive management, but as we know, ‘managers’ who work for nothing are few and far between. And yes, you can make yourself unpopular if you are assertive…

      Yes, I’ll sign up to any ‘let’s do our best with what we’ve got’ sentiment, but one issue I’d be prepared to stick my neck out on is how to take some of the pressure or responsibility off the performer, rather than adding to it. Someone off-stage has the manage the conditions thay perform in. This is as hard a job as any, in my view.

      If you want your artists to take risks, support them in those risks. If you don’t then, naturally, they’ll play safe.

      • Rob Hindle says:

        Rather bizarrely (not for me, but in terms of coincidence), I had a dream last night in which I was asked by a (non-existent) pub in Derbyshire to do a reading the following night. One of the staff came up to me later on and said she was looking forward to hearing ‘those working class songs.’

        ‘It’s not songs,’ I said. ‘I’m reading poetry’. She looked very disappointed.

        Clearly this says something about (a) me, and (b) my anxiety about poetry. Not reading it out: I was fine with the idea – even at 24 hours’ notice. Rather, I think it plays on some of your discussion, Matt, about managing poetry events. The material is one thing: the audience another: and those who ‘manage the conditions’ another again.

        As you suggest, events need managing by people who understand spoken word and are prepared to assert the right of poets to be heard in the right circumstances. If not? Well, I’ve recently had some publicity about libraries events, which are to involve ‘inspiring writers’ and ‘enthusiastic poets’.

        So, better dust down the red braces.

        Or the Billy Bragg songbook.

  • Brian Lewis says:

    I’d agree that the responsibility for ‘understanding and making best use of the [reading] space’ should rest with the event manager (an understanding which, of course, needs to be shared with the poet). No-one should have to compete with chatter – not only is it unfair on the reader, it’s also a disservice to the attentive and respectful listener. However, if attentiveness is something that needs to be enforced (rather than encouraged), how best to enforce it? Should the event manager preface the reading with a few words to the effect of ‘These events are contracts between reader and listener; we would greatly appreciate it if you could refrain from talking during the performance’? Or physically eject chatterers from the room? I’d gladly volunteer for the latter.

    The relationship between event manager and venue manager is of equal importance. The event manager needs to be assured that the venue manager will make the reading space available at the agreed time (i.e. not turn up to unlock 10 minutes before the reading). If the venue manager has agreed to provide facilities or services essential to the performance (e.g. chairs), these actually need to be provided. And so on. Obviously, a competent event manager should also take the trouble to establish that the poet will not be competing with a pub quiz downstairs on the night of the reading…

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