Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

The Poet as Cover Band


Once upon a time, I would have sneered at any musician who covered another person’s song.  I was a do-it-yourself teen.  If you couldn’t write your own songs, you should get out of the business!

Once I would have told you that I felt the same way about poets reading poems by somebody else.  I would have said it was OK if it was some kind of festival, celebrating a long, dead poet–but in a reading of your own?  People came to hear your poems, not somebody else’s.

Lately, I’ve had some occasion to rethink my rigid position.

For many years now, my parents have been ushers at Wolf Trap, that wonderful national park in Northern Virginia that happens to be an amazing performance venue.  We came to visit last summer, and since our plane came late, they planned to pick us up on their way to their ushering duties.  They generously bought us tickets to the show.  I was dubious.

We saw the show Rain, which is described as a tribute to the Beatles.  I don’t quite know how to explain this experience. The 4 musicians impersonate the Beatles at various points in their careers. There’s also a multi-media show. It was amazing. During parts of the show, we all sang. There I was, in a fabulous national park, as the full moon lit up the night sky, and our voices rose. I expect that when I’m 95 years old and slightly confused, I’ll remember seeing the Beatles, but it will have been this event.

If I had gone with my original snooty position, I’d have missed this extravaganza.  What a shame that would have been.

I think about all the great poetry readings I’ve attended or been part of.  Once I was asked to read 5 love poems, and only 2 could be mine.  I liked combining my work with the work of poets I admired.  It made the reading richer.

As I think about it, that’s what I’ve been doing when I teach poetry, except I rarely use my own work.  But putting together a class session can be somewhat like creating a set list.  I’m looking for poems that play well together, poems that intersect in interesting ways.

So why not have the work of others be part of my set list when I do readings of my own work?

Reading the work of others expands my options.  But including other poems also does so much more than that.  It roots my poems in the wider community.  It might also root them historically, if I choose older poems.  And it helps share the poetry wealth. 

When I do a reading, I’m not there simply to sell books, although I never complain when that happens.  I’m there to win over readers.  The health of poetry as an art form depends on having people to love poetry, people who will read poetry, people who will choose poetry over all the other options that they have.

If an audience member ultimately decides they don’t love my poems, but they leave wildly interested in discovering more about the other poets I include, that’s fine with me.  Sure, I want to be loved best in all the world.  But if it can’t be me, let it be some other poet–let me win converts to poetry!

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Author: Kristin Berkey-Abbott

A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.

4 thoughts on “The Poet as Cover Band

  1. Wonderful enthusiasm here! I do love alerting listeners (or readers) to poets out there in the world, and a reading is a great place to do that!

  2. I like the analogy you draw. After all, sometimes covers end up being more interesting than the original version of the song. And what you say at the end is true – there have been times that I have looked for the work of a poet just from hearing an epigraph at a reading, so hearing someone else’s work may certainly send me running for more poetry. Thanks for a great post.

  3. “Reading the work of others expands my options. But including other poems also does so much more than that. It roots my poems in the wider community. It might also root them historically, if I choose older poems. And it helps share the poetry wealth.”

    Yes – love this post! And totally agree with you. Reading other people’s poems also teaches one things about reading aloud for an audience (which in turn teaches you things about how poems are built) that reading one’s own poems does not. Your analogy is great and brings another level of thought and complexity to the question.

    There is a Voice Alpha category label called ‘other people’s poems‘ (just added it to this post!), which pulls up a variety of interesting past posts on the OPP theme. A couple of examples are On Performing Other People’s Poems or You Mean, Not Everyone Does This? by Kristin LaTour and Reading OPP (other people’s poems) for an audience by Hannah Stephenson.

  4. Well said! I often read other poets’ works at open mics; I like to introduce a poet from outside our region, one the audience likely has no prior exposure to. This is really the only way most of us can ever expect to grow our readership, since book contracts come with no travel budget and, when it comes to selling anything, “word of mouth” will always be king. Thank you for posting this; now let’s spread the word!

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