There are few things in this world I hate more than poetry readings. On the frequent occasions I have to endure them, I sit with a polite smile fixed to my face and my mind wandering like a gap-year student with an American Express card. In between wondering when it will all end and remembering, periodically, to renew my facial expression, a few thoughts repeat themselves with the regularity of on an old record: What is everyone else doing here? Are they really enjoying it or just pretending to? Or do they think it will be good for them?
As far as the latter motive is concerned, there is undoubtedly a wholesome quality to the audience of a poetry reading. At non-University readings this is usually because it is dominated by women over the age of 50. However, even when there’s a good tranch of 18-34 year olds present the air is heavy with the air of self-improvement – or worse, an eagerness to be moved by finer feelings. Once at a reading in England given by an eminent Northern Irish poet, I suddenly realised that two girls sitting next to me had started to cry. I had half risen to my feet, cast a few warning glances behind me to signal that unstable elements were present, and asked in a stage whisper ‘My God, what’s happened?’ before I realised that they were responding to the poems they had just heard. ‘Really? Moved by a poetry reading? How remarkable’ I am hoping I did not say out loud, as I sat back down.
My antipathy has nothing, it should be said, to do with the quality of the work being read. Aside from the issue of my attention deficit, some of the poets I most enjoy reading in the comfort of my own mind read their work aloud like the corniest old balls imaginable (perhaps they are aware of the demographic shifting the books?) while brilliantly witty writers can deadpan it like they’re announcing the football results. Worse, some (rare) poets who seem moving or engaging on stage, later turn out to be disappointing reads – and to segue from this in no way seamlessly to my own experience of giving poetry readings, I will confess that I have, at times, attempted to be funny while reading poems. If I flatter myself that occasionally I succeeded, let me stress again that this is merely because the entertainment bar has been set so unbelievably low. You only have to say ‘bum’ at a poetry reading for the audience to erupt like you’re a subversive comedy messiah. Having the element of surprise, making people laugh at these events is like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel – and on the subject of clichés, here are a few more the uninitiated should expect: the overlong introduction by the refined whisper-voiced woman concerning her workshops with disabled prisoners on the Outer Hebrides; the ‘down-to-earth’ bloke clutching the mic like he’s not letting his rock and roll fantasy die; the humorous anecdote from the venerable (male) elder concerning capers with other venerable poetic (male) elders. I try to make the appropriate responses because I was reasonably well brought up and all, but I’m never too far from wiping my eye at the light relief and hooting out loud at the work of canonical genius.
The problem, as I see it, is the poetry-reading public – or lack of it. Poetry being written from a sense of always to a sense of forever (another cliché), it attempts to expand its readership (probably naively) by appealing to the readership of All Eternity. As far as the present-day goes though, 15 minutes teaching in higher education would suggest that the majority of people are no longer really literate in poetry, and readings, so often the PR campaigns for the written word, attempt to bridge this gap between the forms and a readership who have largely forgotten how to read them by appealing to the accessibility or authority of the poet-in-person. Hence the tendency towards corny, patrician bardic solemnity – the cartoon-face of The Poet – or (surprise!) likeable, over-explaining ordinariness. If the appetites poetry once catered for on a mass-scale are now catered for by other media (ones people actually understand), this may be why the audience of poetry readings feel like the already-converted, the desperate-to-write and the willing-to-be-entertained. At any rate, it feels like a strange way to spend an evening. I would much rather do it in private – or, if I’m honest, watch something good on TV.