In an October 2009 letter to the editor, Christopher Conlon writes that he enjoyed Katha Pollitt’s memoir of Elizabeth Bishop (“Miss Bishop Says So,” July/August 2009) until he reached the part where Pollitt says, “whatever way a poet reads his or her own work is fine, is, in fact, perfect, because the way they read is part of their sensibility, their own personal expression of their poem.” Conlon strenuously objects to this: “As someone who has run a poetry reading series for the past ten years, I can state most assuredly that Pollitt is wrong. I have watched countless poets—deeply talented, even brilliant poets—utterly wreck their readings and bore the audience nearly to tears.” Putting aside for a moment the question of whether or not “countless . . . deeply talented, even brilliant poets” exist (when did we start speaking of brilliant poets as if they were a dime-a-dozen commodity?), I wish to differ with his suggestion that poets take classes in public speaking in order to spare audiences readings as dull as dial tones.
First, it should be noted that Katha Pollitt is a poet, and that Christopher Conlon is someone who runs a poetry series—although we do not know in what capacity. Not surprisingly, his focus is pleasing the audience, hers is the poetry. Because my sympathies are with Katha Pollitt, and because she is voicing a point of view I find widely misunderstood, I would like to offer an example. A few years back, when Charles Simic appeared in Seattle—an event much anticipated by many of my students—he read so softly one had to strain to hear him. The following day in class, most of my students responded, predictably, as Conlon would have, with disappointment and even indignation. Yet when I thought about it, it seemed to me that this whispered reading helped me to grasp something about Simic’s poems: they hardly exist as sound. They exist as images, which, like a silent movie, or field of newly fallen snow, are strikingly devoid of sound. This is rarely true of poems—as rare, say, as is the lack of concrete imagery in Robert Creeley’s work. No doubt I had responded to the silence in Simic’s poems before, yet I had not articulated it. His reading helped me to appreciate his poems. Judging poets as performers, as Conlon insists on doing, can only lead to poets who cultivate the skills of news anchors, Broadway actors, or other performers. This may be right for some poets, but certainly it is not right for all. Indeed, many of us value poetry precisely because it does not speak with the glibness of the polished public speaker.