I’ve been in the UK for the last three weeks during which time I’ve managed to attend five poetry readings in three different venues. One was an open mike (the regular Tuesday night Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Café, London), and three of the other events included ‘poems from the floor’ as well as the invited poets, so I’ve probably heard some seventy poets read recently.
I’m amazed how differently different people approach the opportunity to share their poetry with an audience.
Some of the readers just stood up and read without any further explanation. Other than the briefest of links along the lines of, “this piece is called…”, they relied totally on the poem to tell its own story. Others spent more time on the explanations and background than on the poetry.
One of the latter poets was the Laureate himself, Andrew Motion, who was reading at an Arvon Foundation Gala event at the Southbank Centre. Along with another three poets, he had a twenty minute slot for reading. But he must have spent at least half of it on explanation. And, to be honest, I remember more of his explanation than I do of his poetry, which seems to be a pity.
Last night, at the Torriano Meeting House, the readers from the floor were asked to keep their readings very brief in order to leave longer for the guest readers, Chrys Salt and Mike Horowitz. Indeed, the poems were all vetted for length on the page before the readers were added to the list. Even so, most of them doubled the time they might have been expected to take by telling us the where and when and why and how of the poem rather than cutting to the chase.
I guess a few words of greeting can be a good idea as it gives the reader time to gauge volume and the attention level of the audience, but surely the poem should stand on its own merits without the whys and wherefores?
It can be hard to choose poetry that will work well at a reading without being ‘performance’, and if you’re going to read several pieces, clearly a little bit of talk between poems gives the listener time to assimilate what they’ve heard and to change chip ready for the next piece.
But if I’m in the audience of a poetry reading, I’m really there for the poetry. And, although some information about the poet and about how the poem came to be written may be interesting, what I don’t want is to have the poet tell me what I am about to hear or what I am supposed to hear.
Once completed and offered to an audience, the poem is no longer the poet’s: it belongs to the reader who can read into it whatever he wants. If it’s encountered in a book, the poet will not be there to explain what he was intending, and if the poet feels the reader needs to be told what he should find when he reads the poem, I think the poem has failed.
Personally, I don’t mind if the reader reads a different story from the one I thought I had written. The poem is words on the page, or words in the air. The poet needs to let it go and let the reader make of it what he will.
Basically, if it’s not in the poem, all the prosing about the whys and hows in footnotes and explanatory guff won’t solve the problem.