Having attended several different reading events over the last few months, I find myself wondering if an audience can separate the quality of a poem’s craft from the quality of its presentation by the reader.
Over the years, I have heard many less-than-interesting readings of poems that I found exquisitely crafted on the page. This is an issue I have thought about often, especially regarding “famous” poets whose readings have disappointed. I can always find comfort in returning to poems I have previously enjoyed on the page and rediscovering their merits in that way.
This separation is also easy when the readings are found on websites that feature audio. Here, I can listen and then re-read without the sound if I find that the reading does not enhance the poem for me.
At a live reading event, if I am hearing lines and phrases that I want to revisit, I am willing to purchase the book or seek out the poet’s work online to see how the words play out on the page. This part of the equation is easy for me to wrap my brain around: good writing stands out, whether it is well-read or not.
But I have been challenged lately by the opposite dynamic: what if the reader is engaging and confident, but the material seems amateurish, not well-crafted, or simply not to the listener’s taste?
I understand that any discussion of quality relies on subjectivity – the eye of the beholder, and all that. I have become frustrated, however, when a reader performs a poem that pays little attention to craft, relying solely on stage presence (and sometimes on intimidating volume) to “sell” a poem to an audience. It is akin to watching a band full of musicians jump around and make a lot of noise, but not really know how to play a song.
Many audiences respond positively to these performances as entertainment, which means the reading evidently works on some level. Yet I often have a difficult time separating the entertainment value of a reading from the level of writing in the poem. I have no strategy (as I do above for the other problem) to separate the words from the way they are being spoken.
So, what do you think? Should the quality of the poem itself be considered when you are deciding whether or not a reader is effective? If you can separate the two, please leave a comment. I would love to know how!