Feature Articles

TAKING THE MIC by Kate O'Shea

(Poetry Ireland News, March/April 2003)

Performance poetry, poetry slams, open mic nights. What’s it all about? Sitting through any number of poetry readings (with or without a microphone) is a good way to grasp a healthy loathing of the form. Yet in recent years, technology has led to a resurgence of interest in poesia. Indeed, on a bad day, the Internet is almost sluggish with poets and poetasters.

And while it’s not quite celebrity, many have made their way out of the closet to find ever-more-youthful devotees who not only read poetry but write and perform it as well.

What of it? We must have our fancies – for some it’s a microphone, others may prefer a pen no larger than their sense of humour. Aristotle observed that the poet is concerned with the universal rather than the particular. Would the rhyming world be a better place without open mic nights? I seriously doubt it. Microphones are not easy to come by or affordable in comparison to pens, available in most newsagents. Newsagents are not fussy and will furnish any die-hard scribblers with the necessary tools.

Should we gather up all the pens in order to stop the collapse of poetry, or to guard against shoddy penmanship? The idea is ludicrous. While almost any experience might create a poem, it does not follow that every successful utterance of experience is poetry. Verse alone does not make a poem.  Lines may scan and rhyme yet be quite unpoetic:

"I put a hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.”
-
Dr. Johnson

A poem is self-transcending but, while the microphone may amplify sounds so that you seem louder (and more important), it cannot make you a poet. The nature of poetry is too mysterious to examine, and there is no yardstick by which you can measure technical proficiency.

A poem is or isn’t. Emotion, no matter how strong and genuine, is not poetry. I, for one, am very amused by the paradox of poetry’s obstinate continuance in the present phase of civilisation. As for open mic nights – poetry is reinventing itself and finding new audiences.

It’s hard enough for a young person to admit to writing poetry and then have to go out there (without a parachute) and read it to a roomful of giddy strangers. Yeats would call that reckless courage.

Who knows: in that vast cosmos of poeticules, perhaps there’s a John Betjemen or an Anne Sexton bumping in the crowd? I would ban boring verse, the type that’s mannered and literary in the old-fashioned sense. Personally I cannot stand the trained actor method of reading poetry. It’s sonorous and empty.

A poetry reading/open mic night is an odd creature. However, it shouldn’t be reduced to therapy. Each reading has its own character; it affects and reflects the audience. There is no correct or exact formula, but it is important to have good poets who know their craft. Each individual poet offers a contribution to the whole. Even with the microphone you cannot make a poem better than it really is.

The most experienced and dynamic poets run the risk of boring an audience if they are unaware of the listeners’ capacity for absorption. Enough of poeticalness. Open mic nights have got a bad press and are a fairly recent phenomenon on this island. However, they should not translate to complete laissez faire on the part of the poet, a licence to metrical anarchy.

I hope it won’t become a dead movement – doing the poetry thing and seeking novelty for its own sake. The purpose of poetry readings, with or without the microphone, is to interest and entertain.

It’s not poetry wars. Really.

Yours truly, Kate O’Shea.

Kate O’Shea ran a very successful multi-media group Chocolate Sundaes at La Cave for four years in the nineties with William Kennedy and the late Christopher Daybell. They did not have a microphone.

 

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