Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Problem with Poetry Readings

(editor's note: this article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of NAWG LINK)

The deeper I go into poetry, the more I am convinced that what makes poetry powerful isn’t the appearance of words on a page, but the effect of those words being transmitted from poet to audience. The democratic principle appears to be behind me on this. Open mic nights, slams, and "poems and pints" sessions are springing up all over the place. Poets who appear at these gigs range in age from students to retired people, and in style from shaven-headed rappers to foppish Victorian throwbacks.

Not everybody in the poetic world agrees that this is a good thing. There is a distinct snobbishness from certain quarters – a suggestion that poetry should be elitist rather than democratic, intellectual rather than accessible. A dangerous mind-set for poets to possess.

My first poetry readings, back in my student days, were tipsy, hedonistic, romantic affairs. These days, "poetry readings" mostly seem to involve a darkened room, a stack of books, and a guest poet sat behind them. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this format. But it's more like a sort of highbrow Jackanory than the poetry readings that were so formative for me.

I've lost count of poetry readings where the poets don't seem to understand how to connect with an audience. They have sat miles back, buried their noses in the books, and mumbled their poems – often without even a microphone to mumble them into. It's as if they are embarrassed by the whole affair.

Is this really the way for the poetry world to win new audiences? Is it heck.

What makes it worse is that I'm not talking about amateur poets. I have seen some of the most respected names in British poetry give readings like this.

The audiences are sometimes as much of a problem as the poets. The whole affair can degenerate into an excuse for people of a certain caste (usually white, patrician and elderly) to show their faces in the right company. I've walked into events like these and left with a definite impression that my face doesn't fit. Audiences have been downright rude: I've been cold-shouldered, talked across, even on one occasion verbally abused. Are they telling me I'm not part of the poetry "set" and have no place there?

Poetry exists to stir a response in others. There is no better way to stimulate that response than by performing poems in front of an audience. Not all poets have a natural aptitude for this. But all poets who have ambitions to succeed as poets need to learn how to do it. Poetry needs to live, to breathe. To be heard.

Its audience deserves nothing less.


  1. In fact, I've encountered the nose-in-book-and-mumbling approach more often in professionals in front of an audience of hundreds than in so-called amateurs. I do wonder what set the trend in motion.

  2. I think it's a tribute to your own work with Speakers Corner that your particular open mic evening never feels anything less than warm and inclusive Andy. I've been to a few clique ones myself and it can really dampen the enthusiasm to go out and share your work. There are so many different types and schools of poetry that it seems to become as susceptible to division and factioning off as alternative music. At the root of it we all love poetry and that's surely why we do it - unity is always what makes a scene (ooh awful word I know) stronger, and I think our beloved artform deserves some of that right now.
    Great post Andy