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.