Listening to Poetry

An Aural Dilemma

Why is it sometimes so difficult to really listen to poetry, even at a poetry reading, or rather, especially at a poetry reading?

Is it too difficult to hear a poem read aloud and come away with all of it, line by line? Is it the reader, or is it the poems? Recently, at an outdoor literary festival, I had a terrible time keeping my mind on the poetry. People were talking, walking by, someone behind me unwrapped a sandwich, someone else was wondering who was reading next, a cute baby was gurgling, the sky was rumbling, the sound system was overrun by voices from the next stage over.

The hardest thing – and consequently, the most rewarding thing – about poetry is you really have to pay attention to it. You have to be quiet before it. You have to make your brain turn off all the other things it does and listen to the music of the language. It can be hard. It gets harder the busier and noisier other parts of our lives become. It is something I have to work at, and even after years of reading and listening to poetry, sometimes I still fail at it. Listening to the outdoor reading was like trying to paint a pastoral landscape in Times Square, an exercise in tuning out, in focusing on imagery and music.

And in the end, it really helps if the poet, reading his or her work, meets you halfway.

by Renee Lorion

With Renee’s thoughts in mind, I headed down to the City College Book Fair this weekend in San Diego.  Sponsored by the folks at San Diego City Works Press, this event is fast developing into a major event, and this year featured a impressive group of readers including Juan Williams, Thomas Frank, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Li-Young Lee, and Carolyn Forché.

I arrived halfway through Lee’s reading and became exactly the kind of distraction Renee described above.  It was standing room only, and I took my position at the back, shut my mouth, and did everything I could to focus my mind on “active listening.”  It wasn’t easy.  Lee is soft-spoken, and he was reading poems I wasn’t familiar with; during the long poem he closed with, I latched on to a few striking images but failed completely to understand the poem as a whole.  Standing near the rear, the constant coming and going of my fellow spectators proved incredibly disruptive.  I wasn’t alone.  People shot dirty looks at “loud” neighbors, and it looked there might be violence when a cameraman filming the event ripped open a new pack of batteries for his camera.  It was intense—not necessarily the reading, but the setting’s need for perfect quiet and absolute focus.

I left the room with more questions than answers.  What did a poetry reading need to succeed?  Are we right to focus on stillness and silence, on freezing the world out and collecting the energy of the room exclusively on the poet, and more importantly, the words coming out of his/her mouth?  A few hours later, I headed in to Carolyn Forché’s reading wondering if there wasn’t another way, if poetry readings shouldn’t be doing more to “adapt” to the needs of the audience.  Certainly spoken artists and performance poets think so, but once on a stage, shouldn’t every poet be a “performance” poet?

Taking my seat, I wondered what it would be like if Forché’s reading played out more like a rock show, with people leaving their seats and cramming up front near the stage, shouting and clapping wildly between poems, and calling out “read ‘The Colonel!  The Colonel!”

Of course, none of that happened.  Still, Forché offered a compelling example of what the poet can do, as Renee says above, to meet his/her readers halfway.  She read her poems forcefully, using a different, more urgent, voice than when she spoke, and punctuated the air with animated hand gestures.  She addressed individuals in the audience when reading poems about or for them, and she balanced the gravitas of her poems with humorous (but short) asides between them.  There was no mosh pit, but there was a standing ovation afterwards, and as I left the room, I realized how “quickly” time had passed during the reading and how little work it had been for me to pay attention to the poems.

by Martin Woodside


One comment

  1. I heard Carolyn Forché read years ago and had the same experience. She is a wonderful poet.
    I think it is up to the poet to meet the audience more than halfway. Poetry is different in different mediums and not all poets understand that.

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