Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics, Hunter College
Readings were the normal method of presenting one's literary work in Roman times. Vergil and Horace gave preliminary recitals of their poetry to patrons and literati before having the final versions of their work committed to papyrus scrolls. Such preliminary readings allowed for a bit of judicious criticism, followed by rewriting. For the most part, however, the Roman poet presented a finished and polished text for the delectation of his listeners. Readings were also given by prose writers, such as historians and naturalists.
This arrangement made perfect sense in ancient times. In a dominantly oral culture, a handwritten text was merely an adjunct to viva voce presentation and--if the material warranted it--to the subsequent memorization of a poem. It must be remembered that when a Roman said he loved poetry, this meant that he had memorized vast amounts of it and could recite it without written aid, and this was true even if he were rich enough to own an extensive library. The Roman poetry reading, therefore, was simply the auditory expression of an already well-grounded literacy.
The modern poetry reading is much different. Our world is awash with printed texts that no one reads, much less memorizes. Today a reading is a desperate attempt to draw attention to one's poems before they slip into the sea of oblivion that usually swallows most literary productions. It's a means of advertising a text that would otherwise get lost in an unmanageable flood of disregarded paper. The process is a self-defeating one, of course, as the number of poetry readings increases.
Even more interesting are the non-literary reasons for a modern poetry reading. Many people show up at these events neither to read verse nor to hear it, but simply to socialize. Haven't you ever wondered why there are so many unattached women at these gatherings? Think about it from the female point of view: what better place to meet a non-threatening male with an intellectual coloration? The poetry reading thus becomes a kind of meat-market for singles on the make, a litterateur's version of Club Med. Here in New York City the readings at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, and at the 92nd Street Y in Yorkville, are notorious pickup spots.
Other persons attend because they think a poetry reading is a great place to "network." I've never quite understood the meaning of that verb, but it seems to refer to a process of hustling strangers for their phone numbers so that you can later contact them for favors. The assumption is that, with enough of these phone numbers, you'll be able to attain something in the poetry world that your actual talents can't guarantee. You can tell the networkers at any poetry reading--they are the ones with big smiles and oleaginous manners, who accost everyone during intermission.
These things, nevertheless, are inconsequential, and do not touch upon the real structural problem that afflicts the modern poetry reading. The major difficulty is that, under current conditions, a poetry reading is an inherently dramatic situation. All of its elements (a reader, a performance space, a podium, a seated audience, the various trappings of spectacle) tend to evoke expectations of the sort that are more appropriate to an opera, a ballet, or a drama. In short, a great many people are there not to listen to poetry but to be entertained. This is a real difference that must be explored.
Genuine love for poetry means a love for specific texts--ones that have startled or moved you in unforgettable ways. This love has nothing to do with the author of a text, who is merely the historical accident who has produced it. If you love a poem it will move you whether you read it silently, or hear it recited aloud, or even if the poet is anonymous. Your love and appreciation will be grounded in the text, and nothing else.
The entire atmosphere of a poetry reading works against this love. People walk in, sit down, and expect not an intellectual encounter with language but an audiovisual encounter with a performer. It was different in the ancient world, since in an oral culture all literature is essentially meant to be declaimed and heard. But today, when this is no longer true, the poetry reading is inevitably bracketed in the category of performance art. This has some very definite and deleterious consequences.
One is that a certain type of poetry tends to be highlighted and privileged at modern poetry readings, at the expense of other types. Poetry that is direct, colloquial, assertive, and straightforward dominates a reading, while introspective, meditative, and oblique poetry falls flat. This is because the audience (which is there to be entertained) is primed to react rather than to think. They want to laugh, cry, titter, and buzz, the same way they do at the movies. Poems that are the most overtly provocative of such responses are the ones that win the audience: the melodramatic pieces, the sentimental tearjerkers, the overwrought complaints, the crass appeals to stereotyped feeling. Complexly structured and intellectually demanding poetry, the full sense of which is usually accessible only after a few careful readings, simply doesn't make the cut.
A corollary to this is that somewhat longer and more sustained pieces tend to do better at readings--pieces that are able to build up dramatic momentum in the way that a sonnet or a villanelle cannot. In fact, the shorter the poem, the less likely is it to have any effect in a public reading. Haiku in particular go over so badly that some readers feel obliged to repeat them a few times, in order to make any impression at all.
Another problem is the idiosyncracies of individual readers. Different people react differently in public settings, and not everyone has the stage presence to speak well before a crowd. There is a poet in New York whose work is wonderfully witty, intelligent, and erudite, but whose speaking style is so mannered and stilted as to be painful to listeners. By the same token, there are certain mediocre poets whose strong voices, attractive miens, and commanding poise will charm any audience, despite the thin quality of their verse. The point is that extra-textual factors enter into a poetry reading, and this can warp critical judgment. I myself make it a rule never to review the poetry of anyone whom I have heard recite at a poetry reading.
The attempt to inject performance pizzazz into the essentially cerebral atmosphere of belles lettres always backfires in the long run. When poetry tries to turn itself into a public performance, it is immediately forced into unequal competition with a panoply of modern entertainments designed to dazzle via sensory overload. Poetry can never win such a competition, for its primary approach is not through the senses, but through the mind's intellective-imaginative capacity. We live in a resolutely anti-intellectual and emotionally infantile society, and any art depending on verbal and logical coherence is at a distinct disadvantage. How can the complex narration of a sonnet sequence, or the implied characterization of a dramatic monologue, keep the attention of an audience used to the mind-numbing audiovisual explosions of MTV? The answer is that they cannot, if they depend on sensory appeals. You might as well try reciting Henry James novels at a rock concert.
The upshot of this is that young persons who first experience poetry at a modern poetry reading will almost always come away with the impression that poetry is a spectacular bore. And they will be quite right to think so, because a poetry that insists on presenting itself as some kind of eye-and-ear-catching performance is bound to look hopelessly ineffective and silly in the light of modern entertainment. If poetry is judged by the audiovisual criteria of today, it is indeed tedious.
Poetry is not a performance or an entertainment, but a private literary pursuit that ends in a fictive artifact on paper. That artifact is then available for others to experience, preferably by means of the same intellective-imaginative process that brought the artifact into being. What we need are fewer poetry readings, and more ways of showing people that--if they are going to appreciate poetry for what it really is--they must read and consider and imagine, rather than listen and watch and react. Unfortunately, giving people this genuine literary experience requires that they have the kind of intellectual and imaginative independence that the modern world actively discourages. Free thought and an unfettered imagination are dangerous, which is why we protect ourselves from them by means of corporate boards, network TV, Disneyland, lotteries, and college English departments.
Let poetry readings continue by all means. But let's not deceive ourselves
that they are an adequate substitute for better entertainment, or for a
genuine literary experience.
Joseph S. Salemi