National Poetry Month slipped by largely unnoticed—at least by me. Maybe the dearth of spring-like blossoms and gurgling freshets had something to do with it.
I was intrigued by a post about poetry readings that appeared on Facebook recently.
The title was I Don’t Get Poetry Readings. (You can read the article here.)
In the course of the piece, the author made it clear that indeed, she doesn’t “get” what poetry readings are about, or what poetry itself is about. No doubt many readers find themselves in the same position, which is based less on a critical insight than a cognitive deficiency.
The piece is lackadaisically written, as if there were a kind of honesty in not trying too hard. It shifts back and forth in focus from poetry readings to poetry itself at random, mixing casual observations and clever quotes which, more carefully examined, would clarify the situation in an instant.
For example, early on in the piece the author cites a remark from a recent film:
“Poetry is a very stupid thing to be good at. Poems are basically like dreams–something that everybody likes to tell other people but nobody actually cares about when it’s not their own. Which is why poetry is a failure of the intellectual community.”
There is a sliver of truth to this remark, though we should note the inclusion of the word “basically.” Yes, poems are basically like dreams—though often they’re better. Those who are good at writing them hold our attention and make us want to hear the dream again. Perhaps we don’t “get” poems, but we like them, care about them, feel the need to make them a part of our lives, and rely on them, even, for strength or comfort or insight. It’s as simple as that.
The question remains, Why go to a poetry reading? On the one hand, such events sustain poetry as a cult of initiates and novices, renowned writers loaded with grants and youthful wannabees with crumpled envelopes in their pockets covered with verse. Yet poetry is part of the world, and the women and men who write it have bodies, voices, personalities that come across no less strongly in person than on the printed page. Sometimes more so.
I heard Andrei Codrescu read his poetry at the downtown Minneapolis library recently. I had always considered him a talented and stimulating writer but also a crass and often superficial social critic. Hearing him read added elements of pathos, bitterness, humor, and self-mockery to the picture, making him a more humane and interesting figure.
And such is often the case.
Besides, readings are usually free, and there’s cake or wine. You see old friends sometimes, and joy is in the air. It's a public display of craziness, music, and that higher thing we all catch inklings of from time to time. All of this is quite different from reading a book.
My personal gripe against readings is that they’re too long. After all, a single poem can resonate in memory for half an hour. Three or four in a row threaten to deaden our appreciation. Hence, the patter between poems is always welcome. Reading a poem twice can also be a good idea—though risky.