The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: is randomly decrepid and is neo-bankrupt: is so analogue it's anal.
What is the collective noun for poets? I was asked that recently and was rather stumped for an answer. It’s been like Radio 4’s Any Questions recently, and not so long ago somebody asked me also what my definition of poetry was. I mean, come on, I ain’t highfalutin, no way. Still I boast of my answer (as am not known for thinking on the hoof), it was quick as a flash, “stacking chairs and doing the washing up.” Jim Davidson move over, yeh, my riposte was funny (I think), but its backstage perspective does entitle me to find purchase for my thoughts on poetry readings. Did you know, for instance, that poets are five times more likely to leave the loo door open upon their exit than non-poets? (No breakdown is yet available for variation, but I do suspect that free verse encourages anti-social behaviour and will soon back this up with statistical evidence: William Wordsworth remains my model bookshop customer.) You see I’m not a poet (now that is a true boast in Oxford), and by and large most of my poetic thoughts are those I have copied and pasted from others. But as a promoter of poetry in all its guises – the Bookstore hosts readings galore, workshops, reading groups, open mics, publishes books and magazines, is well connected (Craig Raine once nodded to me) – I do see poetry from its rear, and poetry does resemble, at times, the rear end of a pantomime horse. It’s not that I’m Harvey Goldsmith. I’m not as fat, for starters. Yet. But I do make a percentage of my living as the curator of poetry readings; awful to admit, but as a poetic pimp (a Pimp of Poets is the possible collective noun I’ve been searching) I rake off the top of these evenings, and like a card shark I swindle door money or wine tabs, occasional book sales, and even fees from well intentioned and sometimes pointless arts benefactors, foreign cultural embassies (I spent one morning recently hobnobbing with some such) or Arts Council bodies. I could be the only person who makes a living (on others’ coattails, I admit) out of poetry.
I can understand why people read poetry; I even do it myself. It can be beautiful (it need not be), it can be well crafted (or slapdash), it can speak with a thousand voices (or none), it can be fun (dull as ditch water also), it can be theatrical (or tedious), it can be many things. But why on earth does anybody ever attend a poetry reading? The answer is probably as complicated as to why people buy books (the last reason is that it is to be read, just as the last reason to attend a poetry reading is to hear a poem). All I ever see at readings are banks of people gently snoozing, snoring and dozing, for attention span is finite. The poet’s task – to stretch the finite to the infinite – is not accomplished often: distracted reverie rather than dedicated rapture tends to hold sway. And if you haven’t noticed that, well you’ve probably been asleep…
To be clear, I do approve of poetry readings; as said, they supplement my meagre lifestyle, they provide the sugar on top of my Ready Brek. But I prefer to see them as simple acts of communal association, a chance to sit with others who share your private passion. Poetry lovers can be likened to MG owners who wave needlessly always at each other as they pass on the A40, and this acknowledgement of shared identity, be it an emblem on the bonnet of your car or an appreciation of a sestet or sestina, fulfils a need to validate one’s own predilection. Poetry otherwise is a singular and perhaps grubby activity. (A Grubby Activity of Poets?) Given that there is little variation to the form in any poetry reading, to liken one to ritual is not far off the mark; they offer for sure the opportunity to break bread with fellow believers
So its sacramental aspect is vital, and to attend a reading, then, is a bit like being crayoned in to Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. If it is rather grandiose to speak of poetry like this (although it would be great if we could nail some poets to a cross a few days after), perhaps Sunday morning’s replica, Holy Communion creeping in like a nun, is not too far off as simile: any reading will contain to some degree that sense of adoration, even that sense of unworthiness, as we step up to the altar. Note that not all readings adhere to the Book of Common Prayer – we must allow for Baptists (with their smart suits, starched shirts and rattling collection bowls), rabid Elim Pentecostals (some of the more raucous poetry slams are akin to singing in tongues), the silent Quakers (indeed Quakers do not partake of Communion, just as some poetry readings, of course, contain no poetry), non-hierarchical Presbyterians, socially minded Methodists, and the heretical Mormons who, door-to-door, trade salvation in the form of Post-it Note™ poetry tracts (a Post-it Note™ of Poets?). I can think of a few Post-it Note™ poets.
The mechanics that make up an evening of poetry are obvious yet, of course, so easily discarded. It is extraordinary how overly long some evenings become; one short twist of brilliance is more memorable than a long tapering evening of meander and nonsense, but so often evenings are allowed to go on and on, and on and on. To have an interval is de rigueur: it is for me the focal point of the evening for when else do I sell a glass of wine? (A Hooch of Poets?) But to bookend that interval with readings of more than 25 minutes of poetry is pushing it. If somebody resurrected Shakespeare, Eliot or Browning, we might let them chunter on for a little bit longer, but if you’ve had only one pamphlet published by a mid-range publisher then it may be a little expectant to imagine that everybody is panting to hear you read your complete oeuvre.
A poem is so miniature in its intent, so personal in its voice, that it is easy to overwhelm. So endless verbal paraphernalia is utter nonsense. Monologues delivered between poems can turn an evening in to an Oscar awards ceremony, tedious and dull, the actor (or poet) not forgetting to thank the fifth grip who buttered the toast on location. Endless naval-gazing or intense dissection of a poem or a tortuous confessional where the poet alerts us of how their father would hit them or drank too much or locked them in a garage, give it a rest… I find it no accident that I respond to a poetry evening best if I like the cut of the poet, although I am not sure that I know what that means. A strong personality, even if overwhelming, is wonderful, but if that strength translates in to a lack of humility or an absence of decorum then, just as in life, a poetry reading can become a bumpy ride.
So, too, I find poets who recite from memory troublesome. That’s my personal taste, I guess, and, yes, there is always Alice Oswald to do it brilliantly. Yet for all her dramatic and subtle overlay of memory, I find it difficult still not to admire the peripheral drama, to find myself impressed by the poem’s delivery rather than its content. I am sure it would sound the same had she read from a book, but even so, that book in a poet’s hand acts as purdah, cloaking the persona of the poet from the audience, slaying the poet’s dragon, or the poet’s ego.
Occasionally a reading will be spoilt by the creation of a High Table where poets only can sit. (Possibly only here in Oxford it could be a High Table of Poets?) This is as distasteful as it is alienating, and I’d love to have the gossipy foppishness that would allow me to recite blameworthy names. (A Fop of Poets?) There is a school of thought within the poetry world that interprets a hierarchy, just as there are poetry journals that, if likened to a road atlas, would comprise only the cathedral cities of England. Poetry is wonderfully democratic in my book, it rejoices in its wide lens and its kaleidoscopic inclusion and I approve of road atlases that include parish churches as well as cathedrals.
All rules are in place to be broken (ask Bach and then look at the deliciously delinquent attitude he had to writing fugues). So any of the above need or need not be relevant, and any of my suggested fault lines can sit snugly within an evening and not bring it down: the final straw can be staved by good sense and, I suppose, melding each reading around the personality of the camel’s back (that is the poetry). What is misleadingly called performance poetry might justify far more of an injection of personality and vanity and get away with it (possibly); slam poetry dribble might involve a lot of shouting and recitation from memory (but like identity politics, meat and talk of football, shouting slam poetry is banished from my shop space, though it slips in from time to time, like bubble gum on the bottom of a shoe, or the measles).
But one rule remains golden, the keystone to a rewarding evening. Each evening has a contour and each evening has relief and perspective, and it is the poet’s job to highlight these contours. (A Contour of Poets?) I have had the privilege recently to have attended two brilliant readings; they are like buses it seems and several come along together. Neither involved celebrity poets, just the true belt and braces type.
I saw Helen Mort and Alan Buckley, regular stablemates, read together at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival (I went short back and sides, incognito). I have to say that I was taken aback by their dramatic yet understated reading, nothing heavy, just that the morning was so well shaped and had poise. This was a collaborative venture, an impressive performance they had put together called The Body Beautiful (and I very much hope it will be worked on further and become a future roadshow). Its assembly was less MFI and more Lennon & McCartney, for we weren’t quite sure who had contributed what as the readings were both individual and communal (both Lennon & McCartney lay claim to have written the tune to In My Life, and we look forward to future rivalrous banter between Mort & Buckley). There was just the right amount of interaction and to and fro, and just the right amount of script and free fall scat in its commentary. At all times there seemed to be a sense of direction and purpose; it was rather like a musical piece, and one sensed the opening statement of a theme, its development, reprise, denouement and its finale. The reading lasted about 45 minutes with no break, skilfully curated, and yet its structure breathed, was relaxed and responsive; it was even with regret that I heard the announcement of the last two poems, I wanted more. I don’t think that it was necessarily the correlation of the poems that was the root of this, in fact the reading was as blunderbuss scattered as others, it tilted even at fire-eating and rock climbing along its way. Perhaps the struggle to bolt the reading together had caused a more urgent quest for direction, and certainly its juxtaposed delivery helped my concentration, but it was the gentle architecture of the reading and its momentum that kept us on track.
A few weeks later I attended the launch evening for David Attwooll’s pamphlet Otmoor, a sequence of ten poems that echo tales of the moor and evoke its myths and buried memories. The poetry was a call and response to Andrew Walton’s mud-filled yet warm and playful paintings of this area of wetland, described forbiddingly as a ‘place apart,’ so again it was a truly collaborative venture. Fellow poets added their voice to shade the proceedings, and, like the pamphlet, the reading was shaped, in fact symmetrical, as though taken from the Ordnance Survey grid map of the moor rather than text from the pamphlet. (A Coordinate of Poets?) It was such an engaging reading.
So above all, a poetry reading should have a shape to be memorable. This is hardly a revelation, but so rarely is it achieved. So many readings are seemingly scrambled together with little sense of architecture (a Scramble of Poets?), rather like a jazz jam session, one of those bebop evenings where there is no rehearsal and the vibe is ‘you hum it, I’ll play along.’ Poets come often to a reading armed with a predetermined selection of their work, and shared poetry readings may, as a result, mine several seams rather than one. But even before that problem it is the case that many poets do not shape their choice. A concert pianist will agonize and take firm advice concerning his season’s offering of recitals; even the sequence of keys is vital as well as narrative relationship, colouring and contrast, style and technique: the recital is a journey, it will take you to its destination. With a poetry reading, too, there has to be the sense of fulfilment at the end, a feeling that we have come to know the poet and his or her work the better. (I hardly think a Fulfilment of Poets to be apt; I could have have suggested above a Shape of Poets, though some are rather misshapen so that wouldn’t do either).
If only poets curated their evenings together, even had the courage sometimes to mix and match, interweave their readings, certainly to hone in on common themes and select some of their work accordingly. Not all the time, of course, but once in a while, otherwise readings might consist of disparate parts; nothing in wrong in that, suppose, and poets would normally choose not dissimilar bedfellows to read with, so most readings aren’t poetically promiscuous. But when you listen to a Bach fugue, all voices are related. Glenn Gould, even when he hummed irritatingly a single voice (his eyes would dart randomly about his keyboard and fix sequentially on one line of the counterpoint), he heard always all the voices and made sense of them together.