DOWN WITH POETRY READINGS! by Michael O'Loughlin
(Poetry Ireland News, January/ February 2009)
Complaining about poetry readings probably started with Homer, as he noted the paucity of bums on logs around the campfire. As it happened, that night the Vestal Virgins were having an open mic on the other side of the island, and Dionysus was bringing his own special brand of performance poetry to the people further up the beach. And at the end of his reading the young shepherd who had coughed all the way through it, stood up and asked if Homer wanted to hear his Eclogues…
It would appear that our towns and cities are full of poetry readings. The question I want to ask here is: is this good for poetry?
One of the most popular forms of reading at the moment is the so called ‘Open Mic’.These are usually in the form of an evening of featured writers followed by a list of people who stand up and read one of their own compositions.There are two ways of looking at this. On the pro side, it’s better for people to do this than to have them sitting at home watching TV or out canvassing for fringe political parties. As least it brings them into a poetry environment. And it generates large crowds for the featured poets, who otherwise would not have them. The bums are on the seats, everybody’s happy, what’s the problem? The problem is the permanent darkening of the mind that such evenings can cause. Some of the material, let it be said, is interesting and new and fresh. And sometimes much better than the featured poets. But much of the time, you are wondering why you are listening to a stranger inflicting upon you details of their emotional (and, God save us, sexual) life in mediocre poetic form. If you met such a person on a bus or in a pub you’d move away, sharpish-like. But at the reading you’re stuck, wedged in between his girlfriend and his auntie grinning away beside you.There is one particular poet who haunts open mics, and who likes to wear combat trousers. As he slouches towards the mic, his hand moving down his thigh, or calf, to open a pocket full of hurt, and extract a sheaf of new ammunition, everyone in the
audience is thinking the same thing: why do they design those fecking trousers with so many pockets? The bottom line is this: all too often, people come to those readings not to listen to the other poets, but to listen to themselves, and make us listen too.
Of course, as well as all this there are plenty of readings by more or less wellknown poets which are fairly well attended. But it is a little depressing on these occasions to see poets trying to establish a rapport with audiences by telling jokes. The idea seems to be to create an atmosphere in which the poet is a particularly witty and charming buddy telling us stuff. A kind of upmarket stand-up comedian. But it has become so bad, that one of Ireland’s best poets now spends more time introducing his poems than reading them. Sadly, in the case of some other poets, the intro is often infinitely more interesting than the poem itself, so it forms a devastating auto-criticism. This tendency has become so extreme that some poets, including myself occasionally, have taken to simply reading the poems with minimal introduction.
So why do poets expose themselves in this way? Apart from putting dosh in the poet’s pocket, (and most poetry books seem to be sold at readings) and bringing him to places he would never have otherwise visited (Good Night, Ballyhaunis!), they can have a positive influence on the poet’s work. Robert Lowell for example, has spoken of how his political involvements and contact with Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets brought him to different audiences and caused him to simplify his poems as he read them, translating Latin tags and the like. So the experience of reading his poetry in public contributed to the development of his style into the later, incomparable Lowell of Life Studies and For The Union Dead.
Occasionally, readings can help you appreciate a poet’s work, if like me you think that poetry is ultimately about voice. For example, Robert Haas was a poet I never particularly liked until I happened to catch him reading with Derek Mahon in Dún Laoghaire, and finally, I got him, I was hearing him and it was a revelation. I rushed home to read his book which had languished on my shelf. I had a similar experience with Ian Duhig. Sometimes hearing the actual voice can help me to place the poetry on my inner ear.
In recent years I have organised many poetry readings and some rules begin to emerge. The main one is there’s no point in bringing over a Nobel-prize-winning poet from Ruritania and expect him or her to get an audience of more than seven people. Readings, like TDs, have a local constituency. In planning a reading you have to make sure you mix and match poets to attract an audience. For example, it’s useful if one of them is a priest, a publisher, a probation officer, or just has a large family.
The problem is, there are just too many readings (how often are there two or three poetry events happening on the same night?) and it would be better to concentrate resources for the core poetry audience by holding larger but fewer poetry events. In addition I have to confess I’m just sick of hearing people read their work (and remember, no one can listen with any real attention for more than 15 minutes). I would much prefer a more varied diet, in which we could hear poets interrogate their own practice as their visual arts comrades do, and where we could discuss the art and craft of poetry with ourselves and with audiences outside of an academic environment. Without always feeling that we have to entertain.