Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

“Why We Still Hate Poetry Readings”


Missed this anti-reading/pro-recitation post when it came out in April at the Contemporary Poetry Review:

…reading your verse has an impact in terms of the performance of your poems before a live audience, and that impact is negative. The poet reciting his verse can make use of the actor’s craft—not least of which are gesture and expressiveness—to perform the poem dramatically. By comparison, the poet reading his verse is a humble creature in front of an audience: eyes down on the page, body behind a lectern, mouth in front of a microphone. The poet-reader presents his audience with nothing in terms of his presence (or “visual impact”) but only as a disembodied voice to be heard—much like a school teacher’s lecture. Therein lies a fatal flaw: the audience has come, not to be taught, but entertained. This kind of “poetry reading” is thus an absurdity: the non-performance of verse by a poet in front of a live audience. The poet who can only read his work should, ipso facto, not be in front of an audience, ever.

This week, the folks at Commercial Poetry take up the refrain in this post.

Author: Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

6 thoughts on ““Why We Still Hate Poetry Readings”

  1. Nic, who ARE “the folks at Commercial Poetry”? I see one follower, but no blogger profile or set of people whose names are attached to their opinions. That sort of troubles me, though I find the posts hilarious and certainly getting at something very real with the criticisms! And I’d have to say that I agree with what appears to be a basic premise/mission over there that poets can consider their audience to be people other than poets!–whether this is the listening audience at a reading (the topic at hand) or the reading audience of a book or a poem in a journal. I know my audience (imagined and real) contains plenty of non-poets.

    Meanwhile, the editors at Contemporary Poetry Review, whose #2 is excerpted above from a longer list, have clearly intended the post to contain humor with the heading “The Lighter Side,” so I am taking it with a grain of salt and a spoonful of sugar.

    Both seem again to be blasting the overly academic or overly mumbly, head-down-to-read kind of reading that does indeed alienate so many people who make the effort to attend a poetry reading and go away disappointed.

    But why does the criticism always seem to be an either/or situation? Either recite/PERFORM a memorized piece or mumble while reading. Is it because it is much easier to be funny and sarcastic when oversimplifying?

    I would have to say I’ve attended poetry readings where poets do a wonderful job of reading their work with expressiveness, appropriate pauses, eye contact, audience connection, and just enough introduction of each piece to help the audience truly attend to the next poem and shift from one poem to the next with ease, eagerness, and delight!

    Once again, I’ll say that those of us who READ well are often criticized for that, as if we are PERFORMING a piece that must not be of sufficient quality on its own on the page not to need a little help in the speaking of it. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

    • Hey Kathleen – I have no idea! I do enjoy their blog posts, though, I must say. It occurred to me that a ‘third way’ between reading and reciting might be the use of a teleprompter , which keeps the head up and gaze ‘on’ the audience. I wonder to what extent teleprompters are used at poetry readings, anywhere?

  2. This comment assumes that reading is inauthentic. I profoundly disagree.

    This comment assumes, that actors don’t read, that there isn’t a continuum of in-betweenness, that there isn’t a place for the poet performing her work from the page. I live in a world of theatre, poetry, lecturing, writing, presenting, and public speaking. These are all similar and different, and differently nuanced. I do not memorize and perform my poems; my memory is a dictator and changes things. I do perform my poems with a page in front of me, as I have seen actors do in staged readings. With the page before the poet, the poem remains foregrounded. Without, it’s about performance, and too often it becomes about the poet.

    I also dislike most poetry readings. I tend also to dislike most poetry performances. But that’s for completely different reason, which I won’t raise here.

  3. Interesting comment, Nico, about performance often becoming more about the poet. All of the comments here seem to get at the heart of this – why are there only two extremes presented? Shouldn’t we all be promoting poetry (and its life as something to be heard) without creating division?

  4. Yes, thought-provoking comment, Nico. Personally (and I am definitely biased by Whale Sound), I prefer not to have to *see* a reader at all. All I want is the sound of the reader’s voice. That would be a novel way to go about a poetry reading, wouldn’t it – no reader up on the stage, just a disembodied voice all around you, reading to you. Bet it wouldn’t be that hard to set up, too. The poet could come out after the reading to get their applause and be seen.

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