Monday, February 2, 2009

Poetry Readings, November 13, 2008

In this age of universal literacy, poetry readings might seem a strange concept. Why would one give up an evening of watching The Biggest Loser or Dancing with the Stars to listen to someone read to them what they could easily read, and perhaps more easily understand, on their own?
In the very old days, a poetry reading was either a history lesson (think bards, scops, and griots who composed their stories in verse to aid memory) or a sort of archaic concert (minstrels, troubadours, etc.). But today, despite the fact that most good poems possess both musical and intellectual content, few would mistake a poetry reading for a rock concert or a university lecture.
Nevertheless, poetry readings have sustained adequate popularity in virtually every city large enough to have a college or university for the past 70 years or so. The monthly Poetry Hickory events held at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse, for example, have routinely drawn 30 to 80 people for the past 14 months.
So, why do people come to poetry readings? In the spirit of David Letterman, I offer you the top 10 reasons people come to poetry readings:
10. Extra Credit. Okay, it’s true, part of the audience at every poetry reading consists of college and high school students who have been bribed by their teachers to attend in an effort to expose them to “high culture.”
9. Curiosity. Some attend just to see what it’s all about. Others because they know that poets, like most artists, not to mention those who attend poetry readings, tend to be a “curious” lot. Poets still retain a bit of celebrity, and many of them are not above making spectacles of themselves or the unfortunate subjects of their work.
8. Support of the Poet. A certain portion of any poetry reading audience will be family and friends of the poet because they know how broke and desperate for support the poet is.
7. Support of Poetry. Some attend because they honestly love poetry or believe that it is in some way important and they know that many poets will only continue to write as long as they think someone will listen.
6. Support of Art. Some attend because they sincerely appreciate and want to support art in all its forms, and others because they want to do whatever the “artsy” people are doing (these are often bigger spectacles than the poets themselves).
5. Inspiration. A good part of any poetry reading audience will be other poets or wannabe poets scouting out ideas and techniques, taking notes, and making comparisons.
4. Entertainment. They may not be rock concerts, but a lot of what one hears at a poetry reading is funny or dramatic. Traditional readings might be compared to a jazz performance in which the poet improvises upon the text as he or she moves through it. Performance poetry and poetry slams, on the other hand, include even more heightened elements of drama, comedy, and sometimes, music.
3. Intellectual Stimulation. No, they’re not lectures, but the thematic and formalistic components of poems do necessitate some intellectual engagement and cognitive processing to arrive at a “meaning,” and the verbal inflections and emphases of the poet often help make sense of the poem. It could be argued, in fact, that contemporary poetry is best understood when heard and read.
2. Catharsis. I write poetry because to me no art form comes as close to capturing the totality of human experience and perception as poetry. It is simultaneously emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, and the fragmentary, associative movement of poetry seems closest to my own experience of the world. When confronted with realistic representations of experiences we’ve known, we react emotionally. We experience catharsis. At each of the last 4 poetry readings I’ve given, someone has cried. That’s a good thing.
To Get the News. William Carlos Williams said, “It is difficult to get the news from poetry, yet men die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there.” I do believe that reading and writing poetry helps us remain true to the full meaning of the term “human being.” Poetry refuses to take things for granted and explores connections between things that aren’t obviously connected. Both of these habits are vital to making wise decisions regarding the world and the people around us.

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