Why I Dont Give Poetry Readings

Richard Kostelanetz  


Many poets tell me that they dont much like to go to them--that attending someone else’s poetry reading is an onerous duty in acknowledgment of friendship, favor, or some other professional obligation. Sponsors tell me that advance knowledge of a party afterwards generally helps attendance, unless, of course, the party is too far away from the initial venue. Famous poets sometimes make a point of arriving late, better to be noticed, I guess.  

The analogy seems to be an academic lecture by a colleague in one’s own field--only professional obligation can summon an audience. Academics tell me that old ideas are reiterated in such lectures, just as, in poetry readings,old poems are declaimed.  

I go to modern music concerts primarily to hear pieces that are not available on records. I go to dance concerts to see live a performance that is infinitely better than the same thing on, say, television. I go to art galleries to see paintings and sculptures previously unknown to me; I go to museums to transcend the limitations of reproductions. Even a painting whose image is familiar to me looks appreciably different at first hand. On the other hand, a poem heard is rarely much better than a poem read, and nearly all good poems eventually appear in public print.  

One implicit theme of most poetry readings is the superior sensitivity of the poet--his or her sensitivity, not his or her intelligence, his knowledge of poetry, his artistic courage, his insight, his conceptual sophistication, the style of his language, but his or her sensitivity. This theme is customarily reinforced by the poet’s prefatory remarks. However, remarkably little great poetry has personal sensitivity as its principal theme. "My grandfather died just before I wrote this poem," we hear.Well, I’m sorry your grandfather died, truly sorry; but you’re telling me that fact won’t necessarily make your poem better.   

A further problem is that much first-rank modern poetry cannot be comprehended in a single hearing. Conversely, too many flaccid poems in magazines suggest, at least to me, the impression that they were written especially to be declaimed. Performance is thus particularly appropriate for poems that the audience already knows or those that are easily understood, particularly if they also appeal to the audience’s sentiments, not only about life but about poetry. They thus get immediate applause much like that greeting sympathetic, easily understood wisecracks on the late-night comedy shows. Nonetheless, poetry at its best has little in common with soapbox oration and other streetcorner entertainments.  

Most poets in performance try to be charming and ingratiating, even though we know that most great poems, even of recent years, are more provocative than ameliorating, more frightening than friendly, more challenging than charming, more disturbing than ingratiating. I often think that in America at least this delusion came from Robert Frost, who developed a cheery public persona quite different from the darker quality suggested by his poems and then objected publicly when critics identified the discrepancy. In more respects than one, to be frank, the values upheld in poetry readings are quite different from those that inform the best contemporary poetry writing.  

Nearly every poet I’ve heard goes on too long, in part because few poets understand the principle of a concise statement. I once attended an anthology performance by thirty-five visual and musical artists, each of whom was alotted two minutes of playing time. The entire show took 150 minutes, two and one-half hours, including set-ups and intermissions, because nearly everyone acknowledged that he or she could make his artistic statement within a short time. Thirty-five poets, in a similar setup, would never have finished in less than four hours. Considered against other performance genres, live poetry readings are rarely conducive to rich theater.  

What also kills many poetry readings, at least for me, is the egomania that seems intrinsic in much contemporary poetic practice--the exploitation of aspirations to special sensitivity, the use of personal experience or sensibility as the principal cohering force, the craving for personal admiration and recognition at any cost, the hogging of time or pages or prizes or anything else that can be hogged, the pervasive opportunism that hinders collective consciousness. I learned long ago that art at its truest disciplines the ego, rather than exploiting or indulging it.

Furthermore, the idea of trying to win an audience entirely with one’s own presence strikes me as tacky, if not vulgar. That sort of thing is strictly for politicians or stripteasers.  

The most successful poetry reader in my time was Allen Ginsberg, but such much of his effectiveness depended upon familiarity--not only with his work and the sound of his voice, but his genuine celebrity; and it is familiarity that makes many of the great performers great performers. The hazard is that it is harder, much harder, for a poet ever to realize such familiarity than, say, a stand-up comedian or a rock singer.   Most of my own poetry is visual, which means that it is intended to be seen, rather than heard. Visual poetry at its truest cannot be verbally declaimed, at least not without compromising its character. When I’m the only poet on the program, I’ve done, instead of "readings," "illuminated demonstrations" in which two carousel projectors with timing devices automatically throw words up on a wall or screen while I read a nonsynchronous voice-over narration that explains, in a purposefully flat way, the history and purposes of my visual poetry. This talk is designed to give audiences some verbal terms on which to hang their visual perceptions. I usually deliver this talk from behind the projectors, changing the slide trays myself when their cycles are complete; for I prefer, for both esthetic and moral reasons, that the audience not look at me. (I’m not the Poetry. Nor do I resemble the Poetry.) More recently, I tried to show my video poetry, which is to say kinetic verbal structures composed especially for videotape, and even my audio poems, which are language structures meant to be heard apart from any printed text. I also think that on strictly theatrical terms a multimedia presentation makes a more powerful and effective "reading" than an individual declamation or, to be frank, my reading this rant.