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The Lighter Side: Why We Still Hate Poetry Readings

The editors of the CPR wish to thank our readers for their comments, and letters, on the subject of “poetry readings.” Our very short and sarcastic list created a tiff among a number of “the touchy tribe” who seemed to take offense at the notion that all contemporary poetry readings are not wonderfully entertaining events.

Some poetasters seemed wounded by the thought that if you can’t recite your verse it’s probably because you can’t remember your verse.  An even more outrageous suggestion seemed to be that if you can’t remember your verse, it’s very likely that your audience won’t remember your verse either.

The editors of the CPR considered these remarks to be near-syllogisms, admirably clear and obvious, but then we know that poets are rarely swayed by logical appeals (or given much to bothering with Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, for that matter).

So, we would like to expand our original remarks.

1)      To recite your verse, it is necessary to remember your verse from memory, without the aid of notes. To read your verse is to rely, in some fashion, on notes. Reading your verse could theoretically make no substantive difference—in terms of sound— on the performance of the poem, as opposed to reciting it. This statement could be true of recorded audio performances, for example, devoid of a live audience.

2)      Still, reading your verse has an impact in terms of the performance of your poems before a live audience, and that impact is negative. The poet reciting his verse can make use of the actor’s craft—not least of which are gesture and expressiveness—to perform the poem dramatically. By comparison, the poet reading his verse is a humble creature in front of an audience: eyes down on the page, body behind a lectern, mouth in front of a microphone. The poet-reader presents his audience with nothing in terms of his presence (or “visual impact”) but only as a disembodied voice to be heard—much like a school teacher’s lecture. Therein lies a fatal flaw: the audience has come, not to be taught, but entertained. This kind of “poetry reading” is thus an absurdity: the non-performance of verse by a poet in front of a live audience. The poet who can only read his work should, ipso facto, not be in front of an audience, ever. (Those who would challenge this point must also be able to argue that audiences should prefer the dress rehearsal of a staged play to its opening night.)

3)      Therefore, the decline of any general interest (or general audience) for the so-called “poetry reading” coincides with the decline of poetry as a recited and dramatically performed art. This strikes us as an historical fact. The more our contemporary poets read their verse, the fewer audience members they will inevitably attract. (Editor’s note: reading to a roomful of other poetasters at AWP does not invalidate our point.)

4)      The poet who recites his verse should dramatically perform it. This is not an arguable point: these dramatic performances of Dylan Thomas [1] or Sylvia Plath [2] or Yeats [3] or Tennyson [4] or Pound with his drums [5] should convince even the most hard-hearted. How the poet should dramatically perform his verse is a matter of taste. Though it’s easy today to disparage the more artificial and “stagey” performance of these great poets, it’s best to remember that they had an audience to entertain.

Today, our poets compose their verse mostly for the eye and not the ear. Much of it is not even intended to be read (or recited) out loud at all. It’s “paper poetry” – which accounts for more than 99% of what is written in America. Perhaps it’s not fair to assert that most poets today don’t want to recite their poetry, but rather that they can’t. (Have you ever tried to memorize several hundred lines of free verse?)

The point of rhyme and meter—the purpose of all prosody—is ultimately mnemonic. From that standpoint, most of what our contemporary poets write is not (even technically) memorable. That is, perhaps, the most powerful unintended consequence of the vers libre movement.

Our final conclusion is a commonplace and a warning: the fate of so many American poets who have forgotten to study prosody is to be forgotten themselves.

Read Ernest Hilbert’s fine essay on famous poets performing their work:

Intro: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet/ [6]

Auden: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet-part-1/ [7]

Jarrell: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet-part-2/ [8]

Plath: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet-part-3/ [9]

Bishop: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet-part-4/ [10]

Ashbery: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet-part-5/ [11]

Merrill: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet-part-5-2/ [12]

Five Female Poets: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet-part-7/ [13]

Sexton: http://www.cprw.com/the-voice-of-the-poet-part-9/ [14]