Poems and conversation

Louise Glück: ‘I don’t like reading aloud. It turns a poem into an experience that’s exclusively sequential, chronological and dramatic, instead of a web of perceptions and ideas that weave in and out in complicated ways.’

Yvonne Green, ‘A Conversation with Louise Glück.’ PN Review 196 (2010): 49-51.

George Szirtes: ‘[S]ome poetry, maybe most poetry, maybe the poetry I most value, is a process that is experienced by the reader in isolation. There are two pacts: the pact between poet and poem, the other between poem and reader. […] The poetry isn’t that which passes directly between poet and reader, but the medium in between, a medium that is transformed by the space between. The reading aloud of a poem by the poet to others is a kind of extra service; to an audience that regards itself as an audience it is different again. That milieu is somewhere between entertainment and liturgy the one passing into another. The audience is a collective. On the page the audience is not an audience. It is a mind dwelling on a concentrated space.’

George Szirtes, blog post, ‘Reading/performing/spoken word: stage and page.’

Glück again, asked what she thought about people who want to hear poems read aloud: ‘They’re having an experience different from mine and I think lesser if they can be satisfied with readings. I think they want personality, they want an experience like the experience of going to the theatre.’

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Performance, yes; but going to a poetry reading is also like reading a script rather than going to see a play: in both cases, you’re experiencing the work in a form different from the one primarily intended for it. Sometimes it’s additional, an adjunct. Sometimes, though, it’s the only way you’ll get to experience the work. Better than nothing – but more than that, an experience with its own interest and satisfactions.

You get the chance to encounter new work, maybe from a poet who is new to you, to hear poems in the poet’s voice and to go deeply into them, to give them concentrated and sustained attention in a way that listening intently makes possible and enjoyable. Sometimes this adds another dimension, something that you take back to the page later. (Recorded readings offer this too, of course, as well as enabling you to pause, look something up or think it over before continuing, replay poems you want to hear again – all of which raises the question of whether you are closer here to the collective audience or to the reader in isolation.)

Because most poets at poems-and-conversations are practised readers of their work, the readings themselves are usually at least competent, and generally better than that. Conversations can be interesting and illuminating, and personalities can be engaging, but this is less reliably the case – there can be disappointing inconsistencies in the performance of poems, conversation and personality, for example. (The poet, so charming in his poems and interviews, whose stage persona was unexpectedly aloof; the poet whose work was deeply serious talking between poems about her hairstyle.) There’s also a risk, I think, that poet and poems are unconsciously conflated – ‘like the poet, like the poems’… (And then what if you find you don’t like the poet?)

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The reading-and-conversation as event is one kind of frame around the poems; talk about the poems is another. Silence, too. Some poems suit being pinned directly on to the wall; others need to be positioned with others in a single frame. Some need more space at the top, others more at the bottom. (The poet who prefaced one work by noting it was a poem à clef about his contemporaries – would he have offered this information in print? was it more useful to provide it in advance, everyone in on the joke, translating clues as they listened, or did this close off other aspects of the poem that might have remained open if the information had been a coda instead?) That implied third pact, between poet and audience, is a tricky one to negotiate…

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One thought on “Poems and conversation

  1. Mary Cresswell says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of Gluck, thanks to the new collected edition – and I would miss almost all her amazing richness hearing the poems read off in sequence. I keep turning back and re-reading earlier bits as later poems bring them up from the background. … Poetry performance keeps jumping up and down in front of the camera, while poems that require a second visit get pushed aside. Perhaps we need to be more specific about distinguishing ‘page poetry’ and ‘performance poetry’, to emphasise that addressing each is a quite different experience and that it is silly to expect them to to be interchangeable. Margaret Atwood said – somewhere; can’t cite chapter & verse – that going to a poetry performance because you like poems is like listening to a duck because you like pate. She may well have a point.

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