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‘It’s O.K. to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treat you as deathless, but you must not believe them’: Donald Hall on Poetry Readings

By Harriet Staff

Donald Hall wrote this New Yorker piece on poetry readings, culling from his long history of reading his work, but also as an attendee.

Here’s a snippet:

April is Poetry Month, the Academy of American Poets tells us. In 2012, there were seven thousand four hundred and twenty-seven poetry readings in April, many on a Thursday. For anyone born in 1928 who pays attention to poetry, the numerousness is astonishing; in April of 1948, there were fifteen readings in the United States, twelve by Robert Frost.

So I claim. The figures are imaginary but you get the point.


Whenever a poet comes to the end of a poetry reading, she pauses a moment, then, as a signal for applause, says, “Thank you,” and nods her head. Hands clap, and she says, “Thank you,” again, to more applause. Sometimes she says it one more time, or he does. How else does the audience know that the reading might not go on for six hours?


For better or worse, poetry is my life. After a reading, I enjoy the question period. On a tour in Nebraska I read poems to high-school kids, a big auditorium. When I finished, someone wanted to know how I got started. I said that at twelve I loved horror movies, then read Edgar Allan Poe, then… A young man up front waved his hand. I paused in my story. He asked, “Didn’t you do it to pick up chicks?”

I remembered cheerleaders at Hamden High School. “It works better,” I told him, “when you get older.”


It used to be that one poet in each generation performed poems in public. In the twenties, it was Vachel Lindsay, who sometimes dropped to his knees in the middle of a poem. Then Robert Frost took over, and made his living largely on the road. He spoke well, his metre accommodating his natural sentences, and in between poems he made people laugh. At times, he played the chicken farmer, cute and countrified, eliciting coos of delight from an adoring audience. Once I heard him do this routine, then attended the post-reading cocktail party where he ate deviled eggs, sipped martinis, and slaughtered the reputations of Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Moore…

There’s more. Here it is.

Posted in Poetry News on Monday, October 29th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.