The Lighter Side: Five Lessons from AWP (Or, Why We Hate Poetry Readings)

Five Lessons from AWP: Or, Why We Hate Poetry Readings

1)      You should recite your poetry, not read it.

2)      If you can’t recite your poetry, then you can’t remember your poetry. And if you can’t remember your poetry, why would anyone else?

3)      A poetry recital should be a performance.  Most poets read their poems in front of an audience as if they were lecturing to a group of college students. This betrays two illusions. The first is that the poetry audience is the same as a classroom of captives. The second is that the audience must indulge the poet, rather than the poet showing sufficient respect for the audience to entertain it.

4)      A poem should be recited to an audience before it is ever published. This should be a part of the poet’s method of composition and revision. Our modern practice is exactly the reverse: to publish a book of poems and then read them aloud, generally for the first time, to an audience. Is it any wonder that so many poets are so dreadful?

5)      Never be boring. (Many poets are boring – their poetry too.)

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  1. I agree 100 percent. In Denver, that’s why we have the Mercury Cafe, where many a poet has read (not always recited) his or her poems before publication, but also a place many published poets avoid because they don’t like the not-always-published poet clientele. I must admit I have too often read mine, but I blame that on my poor memory at an advanced age. I will, nevertheless, try to recite more of them from now on.

  2. No, I can’t agree with this. Plus, I think the statements, or some of them, are all wrong. I know of no poets who wait to read their work in readings until after it is published in a book. I can’t think of a single poet for whom this is the case.

    Also, no, a poetry reading is not a performance, or not necessarily. And and anyone who wants to tell everyone what a poetry reading “should” be is just being bossy. It’s something different in every case. Sometimes it’s just a talking by someone engaged in the art (and for some, it’s a “written” art). Some poets do perform, indeed, and such performances are bad as often as they are good, though sometimes, certainly they are great. As can be the ones that aren’t “performances.”

    What I hope happens in a reading is that the poet inhabits the poems and makes them live again. And that can happen in a number of ways.

  3. of course the 5 lessons from AWP bear no relation to reality, it’s from AWP! & from someone who never attends open mics where that is what poets do: read a work in progress. & of course you can perform while reading, musicians do it all the time, in fact the paper can be part of the performance. Oy, who wrote this shit?

  4. BRAVO!

  5. While I agree in spirit, I think the issue may be a little more complicated. Yes, there are many bland readings. And yes, a reading should be a performance, but not one that calls too much attention to itself, or to the poet. Reciting, too can be awful—if it is overdone. I have witnessed some performances that were made truly horrible by the artificiality of the recitation. It’s true that poets who memorize their own poems are freer to perform and to make eye contact, but there is a danger there, as these things can come between the audience and the poem. Recently I have come to believe that eye contact is over-rated. I know that sounds crazy, but I’ve been to a reading where the poet had memorized his own poems and never had to look down—he looked directly at the audience the whole time. While it was impressive, it was also very distracting. The audience was never given the mental space in which to BE with the poem, to truly experience it as an aural event, because the poet was in the way of the poem. I believe there is a middle ground. The poet is obligated to read the poem well (and yes, to entertain) but also TO GET OUT OF THE WAY. It’s a balancing act—a performance that calls as little attention as possible to the performer but instead focuses attention on the poem.

  6. I remember meeting a Georgian poet who used to read like a prophet and never brought his book up on stage. Real sturm and drang, waving of arms in the air. His aspiration was to learn to read *from* a book as that was obviously the real deal. Doubtless the AWP could do with *some* Georgian coaching, but most poetry, unless it’s close to an oral culture, is meant to be read by individuals alone. The practice of poets reading from their books at performances reflects that. A friend of mine, an AWP graduate, reads from his iPhone. I liked that.

  7. I used to participate in amateur theatre play readings: actors would hold the script unobtrusively (even when handling small props), glancing at the lines with which they were already quite familiar. The small audiences soon didn’t ‘see’ the script, and the actors could relax about their delivery.

    I never read from a book! Post-its and fumblings to find the page are really distracting. I use a lectern or music stand and lay poems into plastic sleeves in a folder that lies flat. The poems are printed out in large type and double-spaced (at age 72, that’s a necessity for me). And I make continuous eye contact with the audience, sweeping all sectors.

    ‘Performance’ is exactly the right word.

    cheers from London,


  8. Utter Ballocks! I have seen so many good poems ruined by poets who long to recite and forget. The audience becomes restless and nervous and any thought of enjoying the poem vanishes. Recitation is a whole separate technique which belongs more in theatre than it does in literature. Poems that are recited take on an overly-dramatic ‘actorish’ tone which detracts from their integrity. There are many fine readers in the poetry community, and I number myself among them, who do not shuffle or fumble, who make good eye contact and communicate their poems successfully. I would not rule out reciting for poets who can manage it smoothly and skillfully, but if it were the exclusive vehicle for delivery of a poem it would, by definition, rule out many good poets, particularly those beyond a certain age.

  9. Is this a joke? Patronising and reductive, in 5 brief ‘lessons’. To equate poetry ONLY with performance and entertainment is like… well, I shall leave it at that. I hope you find what you’re looking for (but not at AWP).

  10. With some experience or training in acting, one can ‘recite’ reading from a page, and in a good performance, intelligent restraint matters.

  11. Nutts. . .There goes poetry too dense & difficult to pick up on the first hearing. Melodramtic cliche is boring. But I guess with pandemic of ADD.

  12. 1. Only a grind remembers poems in any detail. A lover of poetry’s only important concern is remembering who wrote each good one he encounters, and perhaps enough besides that to help him find it later.

    2. If one can sufficiently understand a recited poem one has never encountered before fully to appreciate it, it’s unlikely to be very good.

    3. Don’t be boring? What a revolutionary idea! Up there with don’t be stupid.

  13. What Jeffrey Harrison said. Besides, doesn’t it depend on the poetry itself? Delivering the “introspective” type of work should create a sense of intimacy, the “declamatory” can be as gloriously bombastic as it wants to be, the comic should be sly, the rap should rap, and the hyperbolic should, well, be hyper if not bolic.

  14. Okay, said my smarter self, one good way to appreciate a poem IS to take in its spoken surface so well you can remember it (assuming, as too many do, that all poems are words only). But there are a lot of just-as-good other ways of appreciating a poem, without remembering hardly nothin’ about it.

  15. You are mixing up audiences here. The audience for AWP and CPR is not the same as the audience for def or slam poetry. Maybe AWP has discovered def and slam on YouTube, and its eyes popped out at the hit counts for the aural/performance poets. Yikers!! You are what you are as a poet; to thine own sensibility be true. I’ll say this for the performance scene: It’s more difficult to deny talent in performance, in contrast to the silent evaluation of poems and books, in the minds of judges and editors, who may have eccentric, political or contrarian agendas influencing their decisions.

  16. Since all poetry is the child of oral tradition it is best to hear it recited. These modern times poetry has become a realm of obscurity, cuteness and forms (I include rhyme, meter and free) difficult to both read and recite.
    A poet may benefit hugely by reciting or reading and then immediately editing the sticking points. Many have never even read their work aloud to themselves.
    Poetry should be a flight to places unknown not an exercise in verbal prestidigitation.
    Not always, but frequently, difficult to understand poetry removes it from readers who yearn to hear it most.

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  18. I agree with the premise that poetry should be recited, BUT a poet may not necessarily memorize all his poems. In a poetry reading of, say, eight-to-nine poems I would not be put off if the poet has to look down at the book or sheets to remember the next line or two. Otherwise, yes I agree with the premise; hey! but let’s not be intolerant. Most people have not been trained to memorize…

    In fact I think that perhaps the term should not be “poetry reading” but “poetry sharing” acknowledging that the poet may not always be “performing” but sharing…

    One of the problems, and certainly one of the frustrations of the editors, is that poetry cafes want “entertainment” so any poet will good, accomplished or dud-ly. The problem with demography is repeated in the over-expanding number of “poets” in our shrinking quality standards.

    Best, WR

  19. Let the quality of your recitation or reading correspond to the standard you would wish for yourself as a listener.

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