Some Thoughts On Poetry Readings: Part One (A Lot of Less Is More)

Recently, I agreed to take part in an upcoming poetry reading with an economy-sized premise: twenty poets read their poetry but for only five minutes each. A few years ago, a music critic, assessing The Magnetic Fields’ triple LP 69 Love Songs, assured readers of the review that the 69 songs are brief: “nearly all under three minutes: there’ll be another one along soon.” The same principle would seem to apply to this upcoming reading: attendees who don’t dig my stuff won’t suffer too much; they can rest assured there’ll be another, less sweaty poet along soon. And since I have been known to sweat when speaking publicly – my students are used to my ever-present Evian and handkerchief – five minutes sounds about right (to my metabolism, anyway).

Actually, I was so pleasantly surprised by the idea of a five-minute time limit I agreed to take part in the event without a full understanding of the premise (this happens when one replies too rapidly to skimmed E-mail): twenty poets present their wares for a maximum of five minutes each, yes, but they do so before a panel of judges. The panel will pick a winner, and the winner will get a full-length and more traditional reading slot in the autumn, at one of Toronto’s premier literary events. (Oh, and the twenty poets have to be thirty-five years-old or less, but that’s only because the organizing institution is apparently this old and wants to celebrate the fact.)
It will be fun if the panel of judges is a motley cross-section including: the judge with something like cred; the bleeding heart who will hug the losers; and the witty Brit who will be ruthless, surgical. In short, it will be fun if this is American Idol and one receives one’s props or abuses from the panel’s good and bad cops immediately after reading, while one is still sweating under the lights.
But what is slightly disappointing about this event’s otherwise novel premise is the rewarding of a winner and, by extension, the validation of the full-length and more traditional reading. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the full-length and more traditional reading in and of itself, and when one pays to see a particular poet, one probably wants a reading that’s longer than five minutes. And the concept of being judged is hardly novel to those who attend slam contests. And Darwinian competition is hard to avoid in the veldt that is the publishing world (isn’t a magazine’s slush pile a Proterozoic sludge out of which only a very few finally pull themselves?).
And yet: if you don’t care for the judges’ final choice, you probably won’t want to pay for, let alone sit through, the victor’s full-length and more traditional reading in the autumn. The real pleasure is in the playoffs. The audience will surely enjoy some of the twenty poets. It might even enjoy an embarrassment of riches! Or it might, at times, feel embarrassment. Or boredom. But that’s fine because there will be a lot of feelings to feel, a buffet of them. And whatever the audience does feel it won’t need to feel for long. And whichever poets the audience does favour – the poets whose readings will seem all too short, cut-off just as they’re starting to cook – well, these poets’ names can always be Moleskined and Googled later; their books can be bought from book tables, their recordings downloaded, their blogs visited. The spirit of speed-dating – a phenomenon I’ve always thought silly – will be well-channelled by this event, I think, put to good use. Surely the super-quick KO, which gives (a kind of) value for money, has a place outside of boxing? And surely even seasoned readers can benefit from an old-school showman’s principle: the shorter, sharper performance can leave an audience wanting more.
There will always be a place for the longer reading, but it would be nice to see more literary events, at least in my city, adopt the fun, perhaps even humane format of brief, multiple performances. I write “humane” not just because I tend to prefer to experience poetry on the page even if I do enjoy a good reading from time to time; I write “humane” because organizers of readings ought to give more thought to the entertainment and sheer comfort of civilians! Readings are often attended (if not plumped up) by poets’ friends and families, smart non-specialists who may prefer a bit more variety – who may prefer a variety show. Assuming one wants these smart non-specialists to return of their own volition or even buy a book – assuming one wants a larger audience for poetry (and one may not want this, or believe the pursuit of this is valuable, and that’s fine) – the comfort of these folks (and all attendees, really) should be taken into account. At the very least, they shouldn't be left with the impression that poets are long-winded, monotoned mumblers. (Leave them, rather, with the impression that poets comprise an eclectic, punchy lot.) As my ex-publisher often stresses at literary readings (quoting some old adage, I think): the mind cannot tolerate what the ass won’t bear. More breaks - not just linebreaks - and more brevity are good, I humbly submit.

Originally Published: March 16th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. March 17, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    apologies, but don't know how else to get it: Would you be able to send me your email address back channel, as I need to ask you something about something.

  2. March 17, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    An entertaining blogpostessaystory, Jason. You have a Part Two? How much more can be said? I have no thoughts about poetry readings, but I thank you for your thoughts.

  3. March 18, 2009

    what's next, an MTV total-request countdown? wait, they already did that, with ashbery as MTV poet-laureate, with video excerpts of his poems, snippets. it'd be nice to see the argument for sustained attention, but i guess that's not very realistic.

  4. March 18, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    "A poet who reads his verse in public may have other nasty habits."
    - Robert Heinlein

  5. March 18, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Mary, thanks. There are a few other aspects of the poetry reading that I want to post about soon. Please stay tuned.
    Many thanks for your comments, James. In an ideal, less distracted world, the audience would respect the poetry reading with its "sustained attention." And yet I do feel that poetry readings in and of themselves - like concerts or movie screenings - don't automatically deserve an audience's "sustained attention" (emphasis mine, of course). I do feel that poets need to work at least a little to earn an audience's attention, and perhaps a shorter, sharper performance can help. Ask not what the audience can do for poetry, etc. But these are just, as the title of the post suggests, some thoughts. And I appreciate yours.
    Great quote, Gary!

  6. March 18, 2009
     Annie Finch

    I was looking online for an article on poetry readings that I read in a newspaper a few years ago--a balanced and energetic reproach from a general reader who wishes poetry readings were better. Couldn't find it, but instead I came across this blogpost, What do y'all think about this?
    Poetry readings are like church: Discuss
    We go at least partially out of a sense of obligation. A lot of the benefits are peripheral: the social aspect, meeting people with similar interests, the chatting before and after. Checking in, being seen as someone who attends poetry readings. But it's rare that the "sermon" itself is really all that bang-up. Every now and then if you're lucky you have a "spiritual" experience and that keeps you going back regularly or semi-regularly ... the rest of the time it's pretty boring, and it's socially inappropriate to walk out or read a magazine or put on headphones or do sudoku while you're there; you just gotta stick it out. On the plus this does make the brunch (bar) afterward especially rewarding and sweet.

  7. March 18, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    Hmmm, a church in which the pews are full o' priests?

  8. March 19, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Annie, thanks for that link. That's a grim picture painted, but one I've seen too many times.
    Zach, I think you're right, there may be too many priests in the pews.

  9. March 19, 2009

    Except for maybe Jack Gilbert, who recently disavowed them, almost every poet wants to give a reading but will opine that readings suck. The pews are full of atheists!

  10. March 20, 2009
     thomas brady

    The pews are full of athestic priests!
    Good one, guys... LOL