You’ve probably heard the sound yourself at a reading—an "mmmmm" emanating from somewhere in the crowd, usually at the conclusion of poem with a linguistic or emotional zinger. Does that "mmmmm" mean that listeners have been transported into the sublime? Or is the poem just cheap, the mmmmm a smug "Amen!"?
Even as the number of poetry readings has exploded in the last two decades—with all their mmmmm’s, their bar glasses clinking in the background, and their crackling microphones—arguments still rumble over whether they are the deathblow to poetry or its new lifeblood. Performance poetry and spoken word has burgeoned too, but with its emphasis less on text than on the poet’s presentation of the work, its aesthetics seem to be all of a piece. But for what I call "page-based" poetry—verse that flourishes primarily via the printed text—the poetry reading phenomenon is increasingly troublesome. Too often we are mistaking the poetry reading for the reading of poetry.
Sure, public poetry events bring people together, creating a community for the most intimidating of the verbal arts. They allow us to encounter poets we admire or have never heard of, connecting the printed poem with the voice and mien of its creator, and adding new dimensions of meaning to the experience the page provides. Poetry readings allow a poet to test how new work reverberates, or doesn’t. And of course, for the poetry business itself, poetry readings are a hopeful sign for an art that seems paradoxically both more marginalized and more popular—especially in a culture that gauges the worth of an art by the size of its box office, where few large publishers issue books by poets, where poetry-reviewing has mostly vanished from mainstream media, and where according to the NEA fewer and fewer people read books of any kind.
But even if the poem takes on a fresh life when it’s delivered in the voice of its maker, it loses more than it gains. Attending a poetry reading has as much in common with reading a poem on the page as reading a screenplay has to do with seeing a movie. Only when we acknowledge that a poem performed is no substitute for a poem read in private will we truly advance the cause of the poetic word.
Debate over the worth of public poetry events has flared repeatedly over the last couple of decades and it is part of a larger aesthetic and cultural controversy. How is a poem best apprehended? In the effort to make poetry popular, is poetry-making itself debased?
In his keynote address at the 1996 PEN Literary Awards, Richard Howard offered "a modest proposal that may yet restore an art that was once the glory and the consolation of our race to something like its ulterior status. My proposal is simply this: to make poetry, once again, a secret." Howard continued, "We have failed…to make poetry known; we have merely made it public. If we are to save poetry, which means if we are to savor it, we must restore poetry to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes our authentic pleasures and identifies only our intimately valued actions." For Howard, a poem is an intimate act of communication, not an occasion for a group grope.
Robert Pinsky responded to Howard, asserting that poetry is "part of our shared communal life, as surely as is the Internet." The participation of poets in the public scene is "part of the civic life of art, a part of the way society held onto the art of poetry, thereby preserving it for the unborn." Using a distressingly mercantile figure of speech, he avers that poetry is "part of the marketplace where we all gather." Dana Gioia’s prescription for popularizing poetry through public events goes even further. He says poets should read other poets’ works at readings, include some music and visuals, and in general mix the media, efforts that he believes will "attract an audience from beyond the poetry world without compromising quality." High school and college poetry teachers, he says, should "spend less time on analysis and more on performance."
If the proper study of poetry is the poem, how does the public recitation of verse affect readers’ response to the poem itself? Interviewed in Newsweek, Billy Collins’s take on poetry in general applies also to how poems are apprehended aloud: "I have a theory that poetry should be like an eye chart in your ophthalmologist’s office. The first big ‘E’ should be easy to read, drawing the reader in. Only then should it become increasingly ‘mysterious.’" But do poetry events take us past that initial "E"?
Certainly, some kinds of poems are more effective than others when read aloud. Narrative poetry, and lyrics with a narrative or situational thread, pack more punch than more abstract verse does. Poems that twist back on themselves to end with neat little epiphanies, as well as poems that harangue or overtly solicit a surprise, are the most likely to elicit an mmmmm. Funny poetry is enormously entertaining, of course, but laughter can also signal a profoundly complex listener reaction. So-called language poetry—with its cool, mirrored-sunglasses aesthetic—tends to fall flat in public performance, except when it glitters with wordplay.
Even a poem featuring the biggest possible "E" is often hard to absorb in a single hearing. A poem read aloud becomes a victim of its own recital. There’s no chance for the poet or listener’s eye to pause, slow down, or linger over a line. How many times have you wanted to ask a poet to decelerate or reread a poem? A recited poem vanishes faster than a vapor trail. Perhaps the failure to understand a recited poem is a virtue of sorts, an insistent indication that the poem contains more than meets the ear. Pinsky speaks intriguingly of "the pleasure taken in language that is only partially understood."
Public readings also work better for the poetry of recognition than the poetry of discovery. In the once-over-lightly venue of a poetry reading, listeners value poems that corroborate what they already feel or believe; they can remain immune to resonance that challenges the psyche’s deepest ear. On a more basic level, it can become easy to decide someone is a good poet because he reads well. All of us know poets whose performance persona—whether theatrical, political, erudite, or ostentatiously intimate—belies the banality of their poetry.
The prospect of eventually reading a poem aloud can also affect a poet’s creative process. Looking to please the madding crowd, poets can unconsciously take aesthetic shortcuts that can damage a poem; the effects that work so well in performance are often the kind of schtick that deadens a written poem. Yet public readings can also serve as a poet’s bullshit detector. By tuning into the eyes, ears, and vibe of their listeners, poets can often tell whether the language or effect of a line of poetry is working. This can be a useful public version of the private reading aloud that good poets perform while revising a poem. Lazy poets can indulge in the opposite tactic, using oral skill and sheer velocity to throttle past the places they know are rough or cheap. Donald Hall has warned of this tendency in poetry: speaking of how he knew a line in one of his poems wasn’t yet right, he said he knew that he could make it sound right in reading it aloud. Similarly, poets can read work that they know isn’t ready for the page but can still beguile its listeners. Whenever a poet announces that he’s testing out brand new and unfinished work, that’s a good time to go the bathroom or refill your glass of Chardonnay.
But most harmfully, a public poetry performance usually cannot convey a poem’s form. In a world where the very notion of "poetry" contains multitudes of meanings, only one element separates poetry from other verbal arts: the line. A poem is essentially a collection of words in which the margins matter—yet this basic element is the one thing a poet can seldom convey in a public reading. Listening to a poem, haven’t you longed for the poet to hold it aloft so that you could see its shape on the page? It is true that poems employing received meters and forms—for example, blank verse, poems with end-rhymes, terza rima, the ballad—can orally convey a sense of the poem’s page. But for poets employing organic rhythms, measures, and forms, there is almost no way to communicate [the poem’s] formal craft. Some poets do try, hideously, raising their pitch plaintively and meaningfully at every line break. But almost always, a contemporary poem in recitation loses its connection with its vital visual field. Maybe poems in performance should be surtitled, like the libretti of foreign-language opera, the words snaking across the back of the seat in front of you as the poet utters them.
For some, poetry readings may even replace the need to experience the poem’s visual field altogether—that is, actually to read a poem. In this context, Australian poet Les Murray’s comment celebrating readings becomes doubled-edged: "The public reading is the real hope of poetry at the moment. Far more people will come to a reading than will buy a poetry book." Gathering warm bodies for a public reading doesn’t automatically translate into more people heading to a bookstore or poring over poems on their own time. And of course, if a poem is ill-presented—as so many so often are, since a majority of poets either act as if they’re encountering their own poems for the first time, or else histrionically wring every atom of significance from them—potential book-buyers can be driven away from poems that work wonderfully on the page.
So is poetry, like a Victorian child, best seen and not heard? Not if poets and listeners admit the impediments that public readings present to poetry. Possessed of fresh reverence for what readings cannot accomplish, poets can learn to read better, and so compensate a bit. They can need to read slowly, as Marie Ponsot urges. They can present their poems as small mysteries, the solutions to which they will caringly convey. They can stop talking their poems to death and instead introduce them, if at all, teasingly. And maybe occasionally, poets can display the poem on the page to their listeners, or distribute copies so they can read along. Thus can poets truly earn their mmmm’s.
The genuine power of poetry readings, however, has little to do with words. For me at least, they inspire an aesthetic pleasure that is more meditative than performative, more musical than literary. Even setting aside the Romantic notion that poetry is a transcendent force simply because it’s Poetry, there is undeniable power in simply having to listen to words that are measured out at a specific pace, don’t always make marketable sense, require you to sit still, summon only your ear and not your eye, and unfold, fleetingly, in the company of others. Ultimately perhaps, Richard Howard is correct that apprehending a poem is a private event, even when it is experienced in public. The ultimate act of poetic integrity is up to the listener: to take the poem home.