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At New York's Royalton
Hotel and London's Groucho Club poetry readings are as sexy as
playing the stock market once was
Lisa Armstrong in Vogue
It used to be that you'd go into a room full of chairs and sit down. People would be hushed. At the far end someone would approach a lectern and place papers on it. The audience would listen, there would be the occasional cough. When the voice stopped, there would be applause, No one would shout. There would be no encores. Poetry readings were like this for decades. Serious affairs of great artistic portent and pained expression. The poets stumbling through their verses, the audience either asleep or bored to tears. But no more, things have changed. Poetry is now regarded by many as a legitimate part of the entertainment industry. Readings are performances, poets have to rehearse, organisers worry about backdrop and setting, audiences come to enjoy themselves. The reading is up there on the list of desirable pastimes. As Marcia Biederman discovered at a multiple choice 'Hipness Test' contest held at a Manhattan shopping mall. The correct answer to the question, 'The latest trend in club entertainment ?' was, of course, the poetry reading. Style is everything, text another matter.
Not all readings run like shows, however. Some poets stick to the old ways. Spoken poetry is "to drama as chamber music is to symphony. Ideally it should happen in one's living room, late at night, among friends" suggests poet and critic Tony Conran. Others relish the traditional hush followed by polite applause and a few questions. No difficulty in managing that. Many practitioners regard readings anyway as a sideline to their main activity of writing for the page. Some go as far as to dismiss public presentations altogether. Anglo-Welsh poet Raymond Garlick insists: "Poetry is not a performing act and the absolute poem is the written one." Yet the majority see readings as legitimate. Where they differ is in the matter of presentation. On the one side are Robin Robertson, Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage, Selima Hill, Hugo Williams, Dannie Abse, Carol Ann Duffy and more, all thoroughly at home with spoken verse yet convinced that it merely interprets the text from which they read. On the other Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, Lemn Sissay, Bob Cobbing, Attila the Stockbroker, John Hegley, Joolz and the rest of the circuit's performers who would all fold up into nothing if the stage was removed.
It is this element of theatrics which causes dissension. Some serious poets do not wish themselves mistaken for stand-up comics. Gesticulations, eccentric delivery and a line in instant imagery or scatology do not, they argue, elevate the art. "Readings may be good for trade", as C.H.Sisson suggests, but on the whole poetry should be a difficult practice where the reader has to do some of the work. "Form is an extension of content," Olson points out. If it is to be read out loud then it has to be composed that way. There are poets whose inept delivery ruins what they've written, and others, like the great orators of the past, who can elevate the banal simply by the way they speak.
Whatever your position poetry readings are nonetheless a vital component of the blustering poetry scene. Literature festivals cannot get by without them. Some - such as Aldeburgh, Aberystwyth, Manchester and Ledbury - devote themselves entirely to verse running week-long streams of readings and fill them with appreciative audiences everytime. It is here that new works are often first heard; it is, after all, a way of giving them publication. The poets read not only for the audiences but also for themselves. It is always important to see how a new work sounds. You can try this yourself - in the bathroom, alone if you want - just listen to the poem stretched out across the length of time it actually takes to speak it. You'll hear all the bumps, bangs and glitches and be made only too aware of its obvious failures. Adrian Mitchell said once that when a poem had a mistake in it perhaps the voice would slide over it the first time and make it sound all right but by the second reading it would catch and rub and eventually it would have to be corrected.
Poetry readings can be difficult if you're not used to listening to concentrated speech and particularly if they happen to be presented badly or, as if often the case, the poets read for far too long. Yet often they are the places where poetry becomes "activated" and can reach an audience for the first time. Here's American Jack Anderson on "Reading Poems Aloud":
The sheer fascination of associating poem and person often prevents even dull readings from being total disasters. Yet some readings are clearly better than others. As poet and reader, and a listener to fellow poets, I find that the occasions I most enjoy are those which are quite frankly treated as performances.
That word "performances" is anathema to many poets, who regard it as synonymous with "falsity" or "insincerity". It need not be. To recognise a poetry reading as a performance is simply to recognise the necessity of presenting one's self and one's poems in the best possible light.
But I want to do that honestly. I do not want to deceive anyone. And as a member of the audience for other poets, I do not want to be deceived. Thus I deplore a platform manner so outrageous that it distracts from the actual poetry. Conversely, there is no reason why a poet should minimise himself or his work. I have encountered a few poets - including very good ones - who are dreadfully incompetent readers. They mumble, they drone, they mutter and splutter and, finally, they massacre their poems in public. These occasions are embarrassing. One accomplishes nothing by making one's poems sound dull.
So much about poetry involves solitude. One writes alone, and even when a poem is published a poet may not know how it affects anyone else. A poetry reading allows a writer to share work directly with others. I like reading my poems aloud. I hope my audiences also like hearing them.
One of the more recent manifestations of poetry as a crowd-pleaser is the slam. Here poets, often organised into teams, compete against each other for the honour of being best performer. Time slots are short - five or six minutes per competitor - audiences are noisy and rarely discerning - the winners are always those who please them the most. Slams can be great fun. Judging is done with a clapometer or by a team of local celebrities who hold up numbered cards as if the poets were ice skaters. The lowest common denominator wins every time. To get ahead here poets need stage presence and strong voices, the quality of verse comes second. Slams are an American import (what else could they be?). They've done much to popularise poetry, although not much to improve its composition. Most have open sections available to all-comers. Turn up and try your luck.
Reading verse in public needs a little practice. Start by listening to how others manage it. Attend local events, listen to recording of the greats. Tapes of Dylan Thomas, the archetypal declaimer who affected a whole generation, are widely available. You might also like to listen to Ted Hughes, Wendy Cope, Simon Armitage, and Roger McGough. Not everyone approaches readings the same way. The performers - Joolz, John Cooper Clarke, Lemn Sissay, John Hegley - sound full of confidence. The experimenters - Bob Cobbing, Ernst Jandl, Aaron Williamson - push the voice to its limits. The old guard - Dannie Abse, Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke, D.J.Enright - sound as cool as they ever did. Check Betty Mulcahy's How To Speak A Poem (Autolycus Press) for advice on the formal approach to declaiming. Ted Hughes's anthology By Heart: 101 Poems To Remember (Faber) offers tips on committing verse to heart (should you want to use this approach) along with a fine selection of examples to practice on.
Actually getting invited to give a reading is another matter. You need a reputation before the big ones will ask you. But local events open to new writers are common enough. Check with your local arts board or your local library. If you live in London consult the listings in Poetry London Newsletter, Time Out or check with Apples and Snakes or The Poetry Society . Attend and listen to how things go and then ask if you can perform.
Once on the platform and facing your audience there a few things to remember which will make things go well:
The poetry reading circuit is full of small audiences, amateur organisers, botched promotions and conflicting events. Once on it be prepared for most things imaginable to go wrong. If you are asked to read and offered a fee always get it in writing. You want to know where, when, with whom, for how long and how much. Check what expenses you'll be paid and where you'll be staying. Find out in advance, leave as little as possible to chance. Even then things can still turn out to be less than perfect. Smiles Above The Platform - Poets in Public edited by Diane M. Moore (Marc Goldring Books) recounts some amazing tales. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Less problematic and certainly of more immediate benefit to new poets are writers' groups. Most places in the UK are well served. Joining one should be your next step. Almost all involve criticism sessions of some sort where the works of members are read out and discussed. There are three main types:
These groups - of whatever sort and whatever standard - are an important experience and provide real benefit to the newcomer. They are places where you can meet others like yourself, exchange ideas, solve problems, remove difficulties. You will learn to improve, give and obtain criticism, and most importantly cease operating in a vacuum. Contact helps, and if you are touchy a writers' group will soon smooth you out.
Groups are listed in local libraries and by the local arts board. The writer's magazine Writer's News and Ian Walton's Poetry Now both run regular surveys. The Poetry Library compiles a list for the Greater London area. There are also two irregular registers: Jill Dick's Directory of Writers' Circles from the author at Oldacre, Horderns Park Road, Chapel-en-le-Frith, High Peak SK23 9SY and the Poetry Groups Register available from the Blaxland Family Press, 12 Matthews Road, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4NH.
This article is an extract from Peter Finch's newly revised best-seller How To Publish Your Poetry (Allison & Busby). ISBN 074900391X. The book is available through good bookshops at £8.99. In case of difficulty e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org .