Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kudos to Contemporary Poetry Review

I have attended dozens of poetry readings. Virtually all of them were identical:

  • The introductions made me think I was about to witness the second coming of John Donne.
  • All of the "poems" were preceded by tedious, unhelpful explanations. Typically, these involved the author's state of intoxication when they wrote this stuff or the unknown friend or relative who served as the inspiration or subject. Like we care.
  • As I recall, there was only one elegy, that being for a poet.
  • Indeed, the only people mentioned, living or dead, were either poets (often portrayed reverently) or leaders (almost invariably shown in a negative, political light).
  • What little humor that was in evidence usually amounted to that dessicated, self-conscious, congratulatory intertext. "Oh, did you see how I alluded to 'The Waste Land' here?"
  • Every word was intoned in a voice typically reserved for hungover, agnostic Sunday School teachers.
  • When tested, only 3% of the attendees--including presenters, their students and professors--exhibited even rudimentary scansion skills.
  • Not surprisingly, all of the "poems" exhibited profound arrhythmia. What few attempts at meter there were amounted to light doggerel. Only some of the humor was intended. There were no examples of free verse (which, as the word "verse" implies, is rhythmic). Only a few offerings had anywhere near the number of repetitions needed to qualify as prose poetry (which, as the word "prose" implies, is arrhythmic). By any objective definition, more than 90% of the "poems" were prose.
  • Given their soporific effect, it isn't clear whether these profound[ly boring] prose pieces were intended as meditations or medications.
  • All of the readings were to promote a book, none of which sold enough copies to pay for cab fare. It wasn't evident why these tomes were published but, in light of the return and the obvious lack of interest in craft, it's safe to say that economics and aesthetics were not factors. Why, without government funding...
  • With a lifetime to prepare not one of the "poets" could be bothered to commit a single poem of their own to memory. How are we supposed to take their words seriously when they don't? Do people watch plays and movies where performers read from scripts?
  • It was immediately apparent that none of the readers had ever received an honest appraisal of their work, as they might if involved in open, peerless (e.g. online) workshopping.
  • Most readings were followed by an open mic for those who'd patiently listened to and politely applauded the reader. About half of these readers stayed to return the favor.
  • Among few other mercies, all venues served alcohol.
  • Thankfully, all organizers observed the Joan Houlihan Rule: "Any poetry reading longer than 20 minutes is a hostage situation."

If any of this coincides with your experience The Lighter Side: Why We Still Hate Poetry Readings is a must-read. Granted, it does little but state the painfully obvious but, in times of professional disingenuity, this becomes essential, if only to flush out the posers.

I have little but my congratulations to add to what is said about the need for poetry to be performed. I have only a few tiny quibbles with the finale:

"The point of rhyme and meter—the purpose of all prosody—is ultimately mnemonic. From that standpoint, most of what our contemporary poets write is not (even technically) memorable."

This is very close to the Kaltican definitions, "poetry is verbatim" and "prosody is mnemonics". Perhaps the statement benefits from making the reference more clear...

"By this logic, no prose would qualify as 'memorable'." - Luke Hankins (Comment #2)

And none does, which is why it's prose and not poetry. Maybe we need to specify "memorable words" (or "words worth memorizing") as opposed to "memorable experiences". We enjoyed every moment of reading Carole Shields' "The Stone Diaries" but aren't tempted to memorize, recite or even quote it at length.

"Our final conclusion is a commonplace and a warning: the fate of so many American poets who have forgotten to study prosody is to be forgotten themselves."

Sadly, so will those who have studied prosody. That is the Catch-22: we can't hope to please an audience without prosody and presentation skills and we can't encourage the practice of prosody and presentation without an audience.


  1. Before thinking about the performance of a poem in is good to consider the circumstances under which the poem be must perform. Amazing how many poetry events I attend where there is no attention paid to staging. The singer Patti Page was considered by some to be a difficult performer because she would not go on stage unless everything was perfect, the lights, the sound, the set. I appreciate that attitude. I have been to readings where a small female poet was forced behind an enormous podium, where the poet and mic were in the darkest spot in the room, where the poet was placed between the audience and the bathroom, and on stages solely intend for rock bands (five feet off the floor and fifteen feet from the nearest table); very few people dance to poetry. When I perform in these places I try to modify the space, move the mic or whatever, but this is not always possible. Sometimes, to be a good performer it is best for follow Patti Page’s example and simply not go on.

  2. Good points, Larry. I've been spoiled in that every venue I've seen has had a 1-foot platform and a decent sound system. Mind you, most of the settings have been so small that the microphone was overkill...or would have been if it weren't for the clatter coming from the kitchen or bar.

    Your comment about the "small female poet" reminds me of a story. Perhaps I'll make that the subject of my next blog entry.

    Thanks for commenting, Larry!


Your comments and questions are welcome.