There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books.
………………………………—William Butler Yeats
There’s only two types of people in the world:
The ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.
Like a lot of people, I still have my ticket stub from every concert I’ve ever been to, from Paul McCartney at Giants Stadium when I was twelve, to Bruuuuce doing Born to Run in its entirety at the Spectrum last October. My November ’93 stub from Nirvana at the bygone New York Coliseum got so soggy in my pocket as I sweated through my jeans that it’s unreadable, but I know what it is. The regular-piece-of-paper-with-a-big-bar-code-on-it ones from shows where you purchase tix online and print them yourself are not nearly as romantic, but I saved those too. As fun as they are to take out and hold in my hand, though, the stubs are only physical representations of memories I’d never need any help to hang onto.
Music, of course, is not the art form I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to. Poetry is. Accordingly, I’ve been to way more poetry readings in my lifetime than concerts. These are inevitably held in considerably more intimate venues, involve a tighter focus on the art itself, and are more often than not followed by extended personal interaction with the artists themselves. I’m not sure how many poetry readings I’ve been to exactly. Well over a hundred, usually sitting as close to the front as I can.
And—with a few notable exceptions—I remember nothing about any of them, because poetry readings are boring as fuck and I hate them.
This is not surprising, because everyone else feels the same way too. It may be surprising that anyone is saying so, but as for the fact itself I can’t imagine anyone will deny that (once again, with a few notable exceptions, who deserve to be commended, and whom I would commend if this were about naming names, which it isn’t, at least not yet) poetry readings are simply not enjoyable to be at. But this is neither a letdown for the audience, who after all do not expect to have a good time, nor a failing on the part of the reader, who after all is not trying to make them have one.
The fact is, people do not attend poetry readings to be entertained (or whatever word you would use in its place, if you object to entertained) by the reading. We go in order to drink after the reading—whether because we are poets ourselves and want to schmooze the reader (whose reading we happily pretend we could stand, or even paid any attention to), or just because we think it is cool to get drunk with a poet, independently of networking. This is in fact why it is automatic that everyone retires to a bar when the reading is over—not because, as we like to pretend, that we are all such tortured bohemians we can’t go another minute without a neat whiskey, but simply because if it were not guaranteed that a poetry reading is immediately followed by drinking, no-one would ever go to a poetry reading.
Just consider the few times that you’ve gone to a reading and not managed to find out what bar or house party everyone was going to after. What happens? You are pissed off for the rest of the night. Pissed off that you got tricked into going to a poetry reading just for the reading. And you are supposedly someone who likes poetry. Would anyone feel cheated by going to a concert and not automatically getting to drink with the band afterwards, or going to a movie and not subsequently getting to party with the actors? No. This is because people actually like concerts and movies, rather than merely pretending to like them for lack of a better idea.
This is not your fault, of course. It is the poet’s fault, for not being the slightest bit entertaining or interesting. And really, it is barely the poet’s fault either. He or she has probably never seen another poet be entertaining or interesting, so where in the world would he or she get the idea that this was expected, or even permissible? I can think of several famous (relatively speaking) poets whom I do not know whether I have seen read. I probably have, but truthfully it’s all a blur.
Most poets today read, regardless of subject matter, as if they were declaiming a speech about AIDS in high-school forensics league—the same formalized wide-eyed faux-breathlessness in their faces, the same mannered woundedness in their voices (the major difference being the inexplicable addition of making full. pauses in. odd. places as if you were. doing a bad. impression of an. actress from the. 1930s). And if your poem were in fact about AIDS—or 9/11 or the Holocaust—this might be appropriate. But most poetry is not about those things (or indeed about an identifiable event at all). And though through its ubiquity we have come to read this manner as simple de rigueur poetic politeness, it is absolutely not, or at least by no rights should be.
What we have allowed ourselves to forget is that it is actually obnoxious to read a poem that is not about human tragedy on an grand scale as if it were about human tragedy on a grand scale. If your poem actually is about genocide, then you are absolutely entitled simply to stand stone still and declaim it in a ghost-robot voice with odd pauses, because the audience has no right to expect to be entertained by utterance on the subject and is ethically obliged to do nearly all the work of listening. But if your poem is about being stopped at a traffic light and noticing how a styrofoam cup on the side of the road perfectly exemplifies a point from the semiotics lecture you gave that afternoon and you still read it that way, then you are a dick. And if your poem is not even about a comprehensible damn thing at all and you read it that way, then someone should walk up to the podium and punch you.
Then there are the poets who, wanting to show that they are not pretentious like the ghost-robot readers, read their poems like… well, like nothing. Just jam their hands in their pockets, look straight down, exhale like they can’t believe it either, and then zip through the words on the page as fast as they can. And then look at you and raise their eyebrows like, I know right, what the heck are we all doing here? Well, why don’t you tell us what we’re doing here, asshole—it’s your reading.
What I am suggesting, and what I cannot believe is something I even have to suggest, much less something that will get people pissed at me for suggesting, is that if you are giving a poetry reading, you are just as responsible for showing the audience a good time as if you were a stand-up comic or a rock musician. You are not showing them a good time in the same way of course, because you are not telling jokes or playing songs. You do not necessarily have to make them laugh or make them scream. But you should be trying just as hard to make them something. And if they fail to experience whatever that thing is because they found it hard to pay attention, it is your fault.
It’s not like this idea is so radical or so foreign to poetry. It is only foreign to contemporary poetry written by people whose poetics were formed by academia. Do you think if you had a time machine and could attend a reading by Frank O’Hara, you would have to try really hard to pay attention? Or Anne Sexton? Or Ginsberg, Yeats, Millay, Whitman, Rimbaud, Dickinson, Byron, Pope, Donne, or Chaucer? Every great poet is a personality. What the audience should experience at a poetry reading is what we all once dreamt of experiencing at one, before we went to graduate school and learned that such expectations are neither intellectual nor modern: to feel that we are witnessing the daemon of the work made flesh.
I know we are supposed to act surprised when someone comes up afterwards to say they enjoyed the reading. But we should not actually be surprised. (If we’re not surprised, it’s only because we have come to understand that I really enjoyed that is just a polite way of asking So, what bar is everyone going to now?). If it elicits genuine shock to find that one or two people in attendance at a poetry reading were anything other than miserable, then just what the hell do we all think we are doing?
What we think we’re doing, I imagine, is writing poetry, and then reading it as an afterthought, a matter of custom or ceremony. We imagine readings as part of the business, but not of the craft, just as, say, the filming of a music video is not an aspect of music proper. And yet, we acknowledge that a live performance very much is. Perhaps not for Mozart or Beethoven, who composed in notation on paper what was then performed live by others, but even composers who are also performers (the norm for music during the lifetime of everyone reading this) still put thought and energy into the performance. Though it may have been the custom in the culture of Homer or of the Beowulf author, no poet now writes with the intention that the work will be performed by professional readers trained in showmanship as a duty separate from composition. If you do not perform your work, no-one else is going to. But the fact that you “have to” do it yourself is no excuse to suck at it.
The fact that we do not consider reading to be a part of the job—or at least not an honorable part of the job, or one that obligates effort or training—is maybe best evinced by the fact that, to my knowledge, no MFA program mandates or even offers a course or seminar in how to give a good reading. Although I’m certainly not suggesting that half of a poet’s training should be in showmanship, I think it both curious and telling that the giving of a good reading—or even the existence of a difference between a good reading and a bad—is never so much as mentioned at any point in the training.
Cal Bedient once said that a poem should always be pleasurable but that it should never be the first duty of a poem to entertain. I not only agree, but consider the distinction to be one of the most valuable things I have ever heard anyone say about poetry. But a poetry reading is not a poem. To say that a reading should be genuinely engaging on the level of a musical performance, and that poets should work to make this so, is not to say that poetry should be composed with an eye towards wowing a crowd.
This, of course, is the error of Slam. I have seen Slam poets who are unquestionably talented, but unfailingly the poems would be better poems had they not been composed with performance uppermost in mind. The foreknowledge that a poem must take five minutes to recite while talking as fast as you can does not aid one in becoming a scrupulous self-editor. On the other hand, I have never seen anyone fall asleep at a Slam either (pass out yes, but fall asleep no).
Just as Slammers are afraid to be accused of being too academic, poets who live and who compete for attention in academic circles (even if not actually employed as academics) are afraid to be accused of being too Slam. The reason our readings are boring may not be because we do not know how to be interesting (most poets I know are not only avid rock fans, but can pontificate at length about rock history and aesthetic), but because we’re afraid to be accused of being a better reader than a writer: if you read your poetry in the most boring manner possible and people can still sort of stand it, that must mean it’s good.
This is not to say that a poetry reading should seek to emulate a rock concert. Male poets need not read shirtless and in leather pants, nor female poets in coned bustiers (indeed, in the cases of most poets, this would be something very other than an inducement to attend). But it is simply pathetic for us to persevere in our bizarre denial of the fact that, while giving a reading, a poet is a performer before an audience and should be held at least to some standards of what this supposedly entails.
The idea that our art is inherently more performable is supposed to be one of our advantages over people who write fiction. If there is a joint reading where one reader does a few poems and another reads an entire short story, and people have less trouble not spacing out during the short story—and the short story is not about sex—then something is very wrong.
I do not see how it can be considered obnoxious for me to say this. The alternative, after all, is to side with those poets who regard what they do as too special for the idea of putting thought into entertaining an audience even to occur to them, or to be taken seriously if it does. Especially at a reading where people actually had to pay money to get in, this attitude is obnoxious far beyond anything I’ve ever said, and I say obnoxious things with no little regularity.
I admit it may justifiably seem somewhat obnoxious for me at such length to criticize poets for not giving entertaining readings, without offering one piece of advice on how to make their readings more entertaining, but I refrain from doing this for a few reasons. One, all the ways I know of making my own readings so fabulously entertaining are mine, and you can’t have them. And two, even if I felt like giving them to you, they would be useless to you, as you are not me. Likewise, the most engaging readers I have seen did not necessarily engage in ways I could simply steal, as the most engaging poets are always engaging in ways specific to their work. Not everyone’s reading avatar should be funny, or sexy, or angry, or baleful, or fragile. But everyone should be something. You need to look at what your stuff is doing and think of a way to create a personality around this that you can then act—yes, act—at readings.
And if you cannot imagine how your poetry could ever possibly be entertaining to an audience, no matter who is reading it or in what manner, then you might do well seriously to consider the possibility that you just suck at poetry, and ought not be writing it either.