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You Can Say That Again: On Poetry Reading(s)

Invite someone to a poetry reading and, even in today’s verse-enlightened times, they’ll generally say ‘No, you’re alright’ – meaning ‘I would rather shoot myself.’ And you understand because you know how it can be, trapped in the audience of a bad reading. Now and then people are obliged to faint and the whole row helps them out to fresh air.

Since the advent of The Beatles (and therefore the Liverpool Poets and therefore Carol Ann Duffy), many readings are actually great places to be, and audiences, rather than consisting of just the organizer and two men and a dog, are often quite full. Because when readings are brilliant, you are changed for the better. You have lived for that time to the full, just sitting there, just being part of the poetry.

But I want to talk here about neither of these extremes, not the purgatory nor the paradise, but instead about the majority of readings – which could be much more enjoyable, and without any dumbing down or poetry slams or giving in and hitting the poet.

I go to a lot of middling readings. Mostly I warm to the poet, and particularly enjoy the intros, and can usually see that the poem was good or at least quite good – but even so, the interval is generally the best bit; a glass of red, something on a stick, and urbane chat with like-minded friends of the poet or publisher. Some of the nicest readings are in bookshops, because then you can browse after hours and buy a physical book, maybe a novel or some non-fiction prose. But at most readings what we don’t do is really experience the poems. We sit through them, we glean bits of them, and we feel slightly virtuous that here we are at a poetry reading. But it needn’t be like that, somewhere between charity and one of your five a day.

My contention is based on a paradox: that if we don’t enjoy a poem we should have more of it. We should listen to it twice. That’s what I think. We should listen to it twice.

Not always: not light verse or poetry stand-up or rap, where something has gone fundamentally wrong if you don’t ‘get it’ the first time. Another crucial exception is the great reading, like that I mentioned by Carol Ann Duffy, where an outstanding poet really connects with the audience. Then we find ourselves loving the poem at once because, even if we’ve never heard it before, it strikes us as ‘almost a remembrance’, as Keats would say. We immediately grasp and inhabit the verse and so we only need it once. This is true even with ‘difficult’ poems, poems which don’t make prose-sense, but which are completely themselves and ‘right’ in language: we don’t have to understand a poem to apprehend it.

But more often, listening to a poem once is really not listening to it at all. It’s only on a second reading that it comes to life. This is true on the page too, and most of us do reread poems as a matter of course. The first time we’re getting the hang of it, finding our bearings. We’re so busy getting to the destination that we don’t have time to look out the window. Once we’re confident about the poem we can relax in that alert, whole-hearted way that only happens when we really engage with verse. And in fact that often requires reading the poem aloud to ourselves. Because most poems, as we know, are sound as well as sense; music as much as meaning. Which is why poetry readings – recitals, as they’re sometimes called — should be the ideal place to encounter poems.

Incidentally, there’s a great piece on OxfordWords by Andrew Motion about the Poetry By Heart project, which proves that the better we know a poem, the more it changes, becoming bigger and more precise. Learning poems is like reading twice only more so. In fact it’s reading squared.

Robert Frost would apparently ask an audience ‘Do you want to hear that one again?’ Of course he was Robert Frost offering Robert Frost poems – no one was going to shout ‘No!’ It does seem immodest, making someone listen to a poem twice. But it’s really not, not if it’s half-decent. And if your poem isn’t good, what are you doing reading it to us at all? So, audience, let’s call out, ‘That was great, can we hear it again?’

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