Reading Katha Pollitt's entry from The Nation magazine reminds me of Charles Bukowski's poem "The Poetry Reading" and the two bring me to my own feelings about poetry readings: I don't like them very much.
There are two people at any reading-- the reader and the audience. As the reader I must decide whether to read to the audience or read to myself. That is, read what will entertain the audience or read something I want to be linked to as a poet; whether I want to be a performer or a poet is the choice. The audience won't get the poet, usually. The audience will remember funny poems. That's about it.
As the audience I must remember to set the bar low. There are few poets good enough to be interesting and most readings aren't by them. I consider a reading good if I come away with a single memorable line and will settle for a single memorable word. Also, even great poetry cannot be endured for much more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Lousy poetry loses me from the first gushy dog or god that died, usually the first line.
The best thing about poetry readings is that they give bad poets an audience, bad poets who deserve an opportunity to read. These are poets who write seriously, honestly and genuinely deserve a reading-- there are thousands, maybe millions. They need to read somewhere. So there are readings all over the place and I go and support them because they serve a function and help the readers.
The second best thing about poetry readings is that they have morphed into little spectacles of entertainment that is often creative. In the never-ending attempt to legitimize themselves readings have become drinking fests, beer tastings, wine tastings, fights, festivals and a variety of things-not-poetry-but-that-include-poetry-in-their-titles and which have readers of poems as their causes. Occasionally a good poem falls out of one of these and they are worth attending for that surprise.
Poetry is a difficult art, is hard to get at at a reading, does not entertain much because it shouldn't. It involves so much that is difficult, complex, restricting. Current audiences just haven't the courage for good poetry. Yet we want readings. I think the driving force is the urge to read a poem, not the urge to hear a poem-- it's an ego thing. Occasionally, it is the urge to hear a particular poet. Give her twenty minutes, tops. Then sit down, belly up to the bar and talk about Red Sox or the protein content of hemp powder.
So long for now.
(In my next post, I'll discuss readings I have actually enjoyed.)