‘What happens at a poetry reading?' I was recently asked by a child in a primary school I was visiting. ‘Oh, all kinds of wonderful things', I lied (not being one to disillusion a child in possession of both these words in her vocabulary). ‘Magic tricks and acrobatics. They usually give out lollipops. Everyone dances at the end. It's the most terrific fun. You should go sometime.' I figured that by the time she'd be old enough to go on her own (assuming parental recoil from the very idea), she'd be busy painting her toenails black, drooling over the latest version of One Direction, and writing her own poems. She'd probably have figured it out for herself.
And if she hadn't, and she actually managed to drag her dancing shoes and wide-eyed anticipation along to an early evening poetry event in her local library / arts centre / funeral parlour / pub back room, then she'd find out soon enough that this old bag from way-back-when had been telling porkies. With any luck, the experience wouldn't be a deal-breaker. But you know and I know, chances are, it would.
Most poetry readings are, let's face it, dull. Who amongst us has not known the bowel-shrivelling dread of the Next Poet Up who is wielding a sheaf large enough to be a statistical analysis of poetry enmities? Which of us, upon hearing the words, ‘My next poem is a sequence...' has not felt the urge to resort to a kind of violence to make Tarantino blush? Is there anyone with a heartbeat out there who responds with voluntary enthusiasm to, ‘I wrote this poem on the way here. It's very personal. I hope you don't find it too long...?'
If a poetry reading has ever made you wish for a sudden death (either for the poet, or, more significantly, for yourself), you know what I mean. Or if you've been sitting there, smiling enigmatically and giving every appearance of rapt attention, but are secretly counting the incidence of red items in the audience, or wondering how often the man in the front row who is clapping with such enthusiasm after every poem, has sex, (as in, with another person) - you know the score.
Or if you've ever been magnificently grateful for a timely fire alarm or a poet who fell asleep mid-way through her own reading, or wanted to kiss the boy who threw up on your shoes, giving you, at last, a decent reason to slip away, I suspect we've been hanging out at the same events.
The formula's predictable, the format's staid, and the poems (if they're fond of their dignity), are rarely inclined to perform.
But here we still are. Readings abound. No arts festival is complete without one, and bookshops ignore at their peril the hordes of collection-buying poetry enthusiasts who want readings and want them now.
Virulent, arcane, mysteriously funded, resistant to any known form of opposition, and able to survive entirely on its own body fluids, the poetry reading, as we know it, must have been trained by the SAS. Except it's not that efficient or excitable, and despite best efforts to wean it of the habit, it will demand an audience.
So how are we to reckon the poetry reading's persistence? The poets, we can easily account for: they do it for the thirty-two quid dangled so irresistibly before them. But the audience? What on earth makes it show up and even (heaven help us), show up repeatedly? What excuse can it possibly have? Mental deficiency? Morbid and possibly life-threatening fear of a single second of silence? Not enough money to keep the heating on at home?
I'd like to meet the person who would give up an evening to listen to a composer talk you through the score, or an architect sing the spec for a house. If you've ever seen an exhibition where an artist re-painted, stroke-by-stroke, the surface of her signature canvas, or attended a screening where the Director danced the story of the film right in front of the screen, please contact the editor. You obviously know much more than I do. We could go to a poetry reading together and you could explain to me the high points: how some slippage or accrual occurs when the word passes from the written to a verbal form. How the physical self of the poet might, in some slantwise way, accentuate the presence of a poem. How the poet negotiates the poem's silences. How a private encounter with a poem ratchets up into a shared experience. How the poet might lead you into a difficult poem, show you an approach, a way to gain a foothold there. Or helps you to listen for subtle music, or to notice connections, resonance, you might have missed on the page.
You could tell me this and you might convince me. But you'd stand a better chance if you don't say anything at all. Write it down instead: I'll trust it longer.
Vona Groarke has published five collections with Gallery Press (and with Wake Forest University Press in the U.S.). The most recent is Spindrift, which was a PBS recommendation in Autumn 2009. She teaches in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. She is reading at the upcoming PBS Manchester Benefit.