November 15, 2016
At worst, poetry readings are simply commercial. People are invited to, or even pay to attend, a reading by a poet whose books are on sale at a modest discount and which they sign with some pseudo-personal message. The poet reads at the audience – which is an audience! Meaning a group of listeners. They are not there to read or answer back. They go away with a sense of having been in contact with a celebrity – having heard him or her read.
I must admit that I have never attended a literary festival – no more than I would a poetry reading. But then I attended as few lectures as possible at university. I preferred to do the reading on my own. I am bored when someone lectures or talks at me. But I listen intently in a conversation.
So what is so special about reading with? Is it simply the sharing? But there are other ways of sharing. I have often given poems to the person to whom they are addressed, and my few poet friends and I sometimes send poems to each other. But this is a sequential sharing. First I send the email, and secondly it is read. A poet friend of mine used to write poems to his wife, and leave them about for her to discover. He was too apprehensive about her reaction even to hand the poem to her. At least I hand my wife poems, but I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to say “Listen to this” and read one. Poems can be complex on many levels at once. Most people who read them do so in solitude. And perhaps shed a quiet tear. When I read Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump I am moved to tears. I know I could not read it in a poetry reading: I would be too upset. Perhaps the painfulness of the poem is why it does not receive as much attention as other poems of the Great War. It is particularly unbearable as Rosenberg was killed in just such an ignominious way as his poem describes: his body was never found.
When Robert Graves read some of his own poems in his lectures as Professor or Poetry in Oxford in the early 1960s people commented on how ‘badly’ he read them – meaning that he stood to attention like the old soldier he was and barked them out as if giving orders before a battle. But I think that if he had allowed himself to read his poems with feeling he might have broken down. The poems were, to use one of his favourite phrases, ‘close to the bone.’ Tellingly, when he read poems by others he allowed more feeling into his voice.
In some traditions, poems can be made emotionally safer by being chanted – as if the chanting controls the involuntary tremor of the voice when moved and reading aloud. An example is Sorley MacLean reading his intensely charged love poems in the Gaelic tradition of almost singing them. In 1961 when I was eighteen and staying at a Youth Hostel in Connemara with friends, we hired a motorboat and its skipper to take us across to the port of Kilmurvey on Aran Mór. The Arans were not fashionable then and saw few tourists. We walked on a hot day several miles to the prehistoric fort at Dun Aengus, stopping on the way in a pub. There was a group of men wearing tweed caps and Aran sweaters, some of them with boots but some with moccasin-like ‘nampooties’ and the traditional woollen ‘crios’ belts. They were standing in the middle of the dirt-packed floor in the semi-dark with the sun pouring a shaft in on them from the door, and one of them was half singing, half reciting a long poetic narrative in Irish. The others were slapping him on the back and pouring drink down him when he paused, and shouting out key phrases or cues. Since they all knew the story, this was truly reciting with not at.
Poems: Reading at and reading with