Poetry readings are often terrible
from the Autumn 2008 issue

To the general population, the prospect of attending a poetry reading ranks on a boredom-to-torture scale somewhere between other people’s pets and a hush-hush overnight getaway for one to Syria. Quit booing, hipsters. I’m not talking about poetry slams here—which, no doubt, some of you have reasons (questionable ones) for attending and possibly even enjoying—but your old-fashioned poorly attended, anemic-red-wine-and-i.v.-drip-white, awkward-silence-swollen poetry reading, where members of the irritable tribe drag themselves out of the darkness in which they have been lucubrating for so many years—nay, so many spiritual aeons—to let their inner lights shine deep into your shallow, undeserving soul.

Don’t get me wrong. I mean no disrespect towards poetry, which I write and enjoy reading to a preposterous, pathetic degree, lugging around the one-volume complete poems of Keats and Shelley on the subway and spending endless hours trying to come up with an honest rhyme for “wolves.” Nor am I mocking waxing spiritual, of which, God knows, I’m guiltier than the next guy. I’m talking about the suffocating, multifarious fog, comprising equal parts preening, navel-gazing, self-righteousness, pretension, self-pity, awkwardness, and idiocy, that so suffuses the vast majority of poetry readings that you feel like you’re in the smoking section somewhere in the back of Plato’s cave.

There, in the darkness of bookstore, bar, or basement, or the merciless, rarified light of the occasional art gallery, a slightly modified version of Murphy’s Law holds sway, whereby whatever can go wrong will, but never when you would like it to. Let a prolix poetaster ascend the podium, and instantly a sepulchral silence descends, broken only by the poet’s mind-numbing mumblathon, itself interrupted only by his endlessly discursive, un-illuminating introductions (“I wrote this in 2004, when I was getting my dental degree. It was a very hot summer, and one of my fellow students, Gary, asked me if I’d like to go fishing with him for rainbow trout. I had never been fishing before, and I thought the name of the fish, which comes from the beautiful iridescent patterns on its scales, was really something. As soon as he said it, I knew that I would have to find a way to put it into a poem, but I wasn’t sure how until we finally drove down to the lake one Saturday morning. As soon as we got out of the car...”), which are nearly as long, yet equally agonizing, as the poems themselves.

About 23 minutes into the ordeal, just when you think you can’t possibly endure any more, the self-styled poet, willfully oblivious to the pain-glazed gazes staring pleading up at him, asks the dreaded rhetorical question, “Shall I read a few more?” to which, wills bludgeoned to a helpless sludge, the acutely captive audience is forced, for reasons unknown, to respond with just enough affirmative grunts and/or nods to ensure at least ten more minutes of punishment.

But when, on the rare occasion, a halfway decent poet takes the stage and—rarer still—paces herself in an audible, comprehensible voice, straightway the forces of entropy, embodied by late arrivals, creaking doors, cell-phones, outside traffic, bartenders’ blenders, and a stunning variety of coughs, sneezes, hiccups, throat-clearings, and pungent bodily emanations, march in like Lilliputian infantry to tightly bind and hold your senses prisoner.

And if the random inanimate and accidental distractions should somehow manage to grow silent even for a moment, a smattering of audience members, who obviously believe they are providing a vital social service to the ignorami around them, begin punctuating every other line-break with a profundity-relishing “hmmmm,” so closely evoking in their cumulative efforts the wheezing of an overweight, geriatric peeping Tom repeatedly failing to achieve orgasm that chances are you won’t be able to stomach fast food, sex, or the sight of the elderly for weeks afterward.

So why risk all the pain? Why not stay home and listen to the bootleg of T.S. Elliot’s 1901 glee club audition instead? The same indestructible force that has so often preyed on gamblers, voters, and David Gest alike—that little bird with feathers that keeps you coming back for more. Because every once in a glacially blue moon, some poet will show up (often a non-American) who will deliver a kernel of something so compelling that it pulls you out of yourself and manages to silence, however briefly, the hmmmers and car horns, and to remind you why you willingly wasted so many other evenings looking for what, tonight, you have been lucky enough to find.

Adam L. Dressler holds an A.B. in Classics from Harvard, an M.A. in Poetry from Boston University, and an M.F.A. from Columbia. He serves as the assistant editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and as the review editor at Perihelion. He lives with his fiancee in Brooklyn.

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