A few years back, I wrote the post what’s in the poem, where I said that I didn’t like how poets tend to use an explanatory “blurb” between pieces at readings to tell the audience how they should understand the poem rather than giving listeners the chance to respond for themselves.
This week, though, I attended a poetry reading by Michael Hulse and saw just how well that inter-poem blurb can be used.
I’ve felt for a long time that some poems are more suited to be read on the page rather than heard, as they really require several readings to get close to an understanding what’s going on.
For that reason, I have tended to choose less complex poems for readings: narratives, for example, where the listener can latch on to a plot thread, monologues, where the characterisation makes understanding easy, or rhyming pieces where there is a superficially simple pattern that keeps the listener on track.
What I found with Michael’s reading, though, was that rather than telling us what we were about to hear, he recounted a context for the coming poem which managed to subtly draw attention to the salient points: somehow he managed to warn about what was coming without me feeling I’d been instructed what to make of it.
With those clues about what was going on, it was possible to capture far more on first hearing than I would have expected to, and poems that are not “slight” were made accessible without having been explained away.
Now, all I need to do is work out what was going on in Michael’s blurb that made it work, why other readers fail, and how to apply this to my own readings.
(The horses in the picture are, of course, in aid of the recent Chinese New Year, which seems as good a time as any to re-think old attitudes.)