Silence and the poetry reading

One of the most memorable readings I’ve attended involved a poet without patter. It was the standard sole-poet format – reading, followed by ‘conversation’ and questions, and then a final poem. But, unusually, there was no chat between poems; the reading section was all reading.

It doesn’t sound as if it should have been a big deal – after all, it wasn’t as if the poet had refused to engage with the audience outside the poems, he’d just confined the chat to the designated ‘conversation’ section. But in discussion after the event some members of the audience were indignant. This approach had clearly not just been unusual, but transgressive – aggressive, even. I was taken aback. I’d thought it was exhilarating. I’m all for context, but I don’t always want or need ‘the story of the poem’ as a preface or a gloss. Yes, this kind of chat can create a kind of space between poems, relief from the sustained concentration of listening, but why shouldn’t silence be allowed to offer this too?

Many poets find it hard to get silence right, though, even within the normal conventions of a reading. Pauses between sections within poems, the pause after a poem before the next utterance – it’s easy to abbreviate them in the nervousness of the moment, forgetting how important they are to indicate boundaries that would be seen on the page, and to allow the audience to draw breath and be wherever the poem has taken them before moving on. Time passes differently for reader and audience. Some of us learn the hard way to factor this in as part of preparing for a reading, and to rehearse silences as well as the poems.

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2 thoughts on “Silence and the poetry reading

  1. Mary Cresswell says:

    Kerry, do you think those audience members’ indignation reflects a feeling they’ve been thwarted of a chance to take partial ownership of the poem read? I’m inclined to think that chat and discussion at a reading is a way of bringing a poem into the common domain.

    • Kerry Hines says:

      Hi Mary – I’m not sure. Maybe it felt as if the poet had brought the poem into the room but then left it to stand there awkwardly, still in its coat and scarf and outside air…and when the chance came to talk or ask about it later, it felt too late? The sense of some unspoken rule having been violated made me curious about people’s tacit expectations of poetry readings, and I thought I’d return to this in a post or two. K.

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