Now, I've tried to go to several of these readings. There was one several weeks ago, which due to my own ineptness at reading signs, I showed up mostly too late for. Just in time to hear this guy read some political poem about the situation in Iraq (*yawn*). The poem wasn't bad, necessarily, it's just not my style to indulge politics with poetry. The two, to me, have always seemed at odds. Politics is the doggerel of the masses. This is, of course, perhaps overstating it too much, but the discourse of politics--especially these days, and on these college campuses where "liberal-minded" students are flopping around proclaiming their hatred of Bush every time someone even thinks to say the word "government"--is self perpetuating. The very discussion of politics, supreme court nominees, taxes, war etc. just plays into the system of corruption that no one wants but everyone claims those who disagree with them are for. Poetry, and more generally all art, should be above these base arguments. Leave it for the pundits. Chris Matthews can write the Ballad of John Kerry. The real problems are more deeply rooted than the national political tit-for-tat. A piece of art that wears its political agenda on its sleeve can only become part of that discourse, a ball punted around by those trapped up in the dead end rhetoric of the national politic. The concern of art is the greater philosophical and metaphysical concerns of our time, the "politics" of it (if you want to call it that) will handle themselves.
This distracts me from the point I had wished to make: Poetry readings are very boring. Sitting in the back of the room listening to the poets recite there work, I was struck by how unmoving the whole event was. This frightened me. After all, studying poetry for four years in college has basically made it my milieu (for better or worse). I should be enjoying these types of things. I should be aspiring to read in front of audiences at trendy cafes, lecture halls and bus stops. But after a rash of attending these readings, I can't see why anyone would want to come hear me.
Wag the poet. The poems are wagging the poets. The poet stands before an audience, sidles up to the microphone, opens her book of poems and begins to recite. Hello! Recitation is not reading. Not even close. I like poems an awful lot. Most people do, I've found, despite the fact that most people spend .01% of their time on it. So why get up there, and just... PRESENT... the poem(s). Poetry reading is, at its root, an act of storytelling. This was of course sustained by the nature of the poems being read by wandering bards and minstrels. They were narrative poems. They were stories. Now, though, with most poetry experiencing the postmodern hangover, the poems do not tell stories themselves. This isn't bad. Far from it. But why not use the reading as an opportunity to deliver those anecdotes (stories) which contextualize the more abstract poetry of our times, and sell the idea that they are worth listening to (and not as daunting as they appear to be).
There are the slam poets. I hate slam poetry. So I'm not going to discuss it. Watch Def Poetry Jam and tell me what you think. That's a discussion I'd like to have.
... A poetry reading should be a gathering of friends, a time to unwind and listen. It should not be a time to sit in a room feigning rapt attention before an edifice of words that is for the most part delivered unemphatically and with supreme arrogance. I'd like to conclude with a quotation which I think sums up the "attitude" I witness at these readings:
"Peter Ackroyd's biography of Eliot claims that the first reviews [of The Waste Land] in England were "variously baffled and respectful"-- partly because of the notes and references, which left some critics mystified enough that they couldn't come out and say they didn't like the poem for fear their ignorance of his learned and sophisticated methods would be discovered."Everyone, let's stop pretending we understand and start asking to be helped along. We'll all be the better for it.