Am I the only person who finds it hard to follow an unfamiliar poem when I hear it read out loud and don't have the text in front of me? Even when reading to myself at my own pace, I might have to go over a poem several times to really get it, but at a reading, the poems whizz by unstoppably-- no chance of a second hearing, and all the helpful visual cues of print , like punctuation, italics, quotation marks, and even line breaks, are absent. A stray thought enters my head -- I wonder why they painted this room turquoise? -- and in seconds I've lost the thread. (I'm speaking of what you might call "literary poetry" here, poetry written primarily to be read silently, not spoken word, which is intended for the ear from the outset.)
I often find that the poems I've enjoyed most at a reading seem oddly flat on the page when I hunt them down in a book. What made the poem seem striking and fresh was the poet's performance: the energy and especially the humor was in the voice and manner and gestures, not the words themselves. Or it was the story the poem told: the poetry reading as a series of anecdotes, with the poet placing and embellishing each one in his introductions: My uncle ran a chicken farm in Iowa, and when he ran off with the Methodist minister's wife my aunt killed all the chickens and gave them to the nuns, and out of that comes this next poem, "Saint Rooster and the Holy Choir of Hens." it's been suggested, in fact, that the proliferation of poetry readings, and their importance to a poet's career, has actually changed the way poets -- "literary poets" -- write, encouraging verbal simplicity, talkiness, easy emotions, simple narratives, and punchlines. It's the poet as stand-up comedian/tragedian.
Still, you can see why poets would try to shape their art to please their audience -- and notice how we now commonly speak of poetry's audience rather than poetry's readers, which tells you something right there. It can be painful and embarrassing to stand up before a small group of miscellaneous strangers who expect you to entertain them and instead offer poems they might find bewildering, or remote. I've given readings at which I just want to say, oh well, never mind, let's just go have a beer and talk about health care reform.
Wislawa Szymborska's "Poetry Reading" (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh) may be the definitive account of a reading at its awful, humiliating worst. To paraphrase the old Jewish joke about the Catskills hotel ("The food is terrible!" "Yes, and the portions are so small!"), the audience is not only tiny, it's not even listening. And yet, Symborska disperses her pity, her warmth and her satirical humor so evenly among poets and audience members and even the muse, poor thing, that what in lesser hands would be just another complaint about the world's indifference to art becomes a gesture of understanding, forgiveness, love.
To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare --
it's time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,
the rest are relatives. O Muse.
The women here would love to rant and rave,
but that's for boxing. Here they must behave.
Dante's Inferno is ringside nowadays.
Likewise his Paradise. O Muse.
Oh, not to be a boxer but a poet,
one sentenced to hard shelleying for life,
for lack of muscles forced to show the world
the sonnet that may make the high-school reading lists
with luck. O Muse,
O bobtailed angel, Pegasus.
In the first row, a sweet old man's soft snore:
he dreams his wife's alive again. What's more,
she's making him that tart she used to bake.
Aflame, but carefully--don't burn his cake!
we start to read. O Muse.
*****The Mind-Body Problem, poems by Katha Pollitt, is just out from Random House.