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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Big Book Chain Chat #13: To read or not to read ...


Harry Owen - 2010-10-07

There’s a debate going on in certain quarters at the moment – indeed it’s been going on in one form or another for a long time – about whether poetry readings in public are A Good Thing or A Bad Thing. And much academic discussion of this (pseudo or otherwise) centres on exactly what poetry is or is for.

Zzzzzzzzzzzz!

This is much like the argument that might be made about whether breathing is a good thing or a bad thing. On the whole, we tend not to consider the matter: we just do it and accept the benefits as self-evident if we expect to go on living. But when we’re forced to consider it, the general feeling seems to be that, yes, it’s pretty good. That is my position too – both about breathing and about poetry readings.

It’s fair to say that there are many – too many – poor readings (and readers) lurking like would-be muggers out there. I have sat through more than my share of tedious dronings produced very often by poets whose view of their art seems to be that it has to be delivered (and there’s a word to debate!) in a mumbled monotone as if it’s somehow separate from the rest of language. This feeds and is fed by the misconception that poets are actually divorced from real life, that they are not real people at all but linguistic priests, seers, incantatory demigods borrowed from another world. What rubbish!

Point 1: Poets are real people.

There’s also another insidious belief that poetry has to be, if it’s worth anything at all, somehow “good for you”. Like kaolin and morphine or syrup of figs it will probably taste horrible but the benefits of the medicine are expected to outweigh the unpleasantness: a good dose of poetry now and then acts as a purgative or tonic, a colonic irrigation of the soul. This implies, of course, that any public reading of poetry, wherever it crops up, is almost inevitably going to be at least boring and in all probability painful as well.

I disagree. I am absolutely passionate about poetry’s place in the world. (Note that: in the world.) In fact, poetry is the most expressive and most essentially human of all the arts (which are themselves the essence of everything that is best in human endeavour, much undervalued in societies that define growth solely in terms of financial profit).

Good poetry readings, then – by which I mean well-organised, exciting events populated by a wide spectrum of real people who take genuine pleasure in sharing their delight in language with others of similar passion – are some of the most enjoyable occasions I have ever attended. And the best readers tend to be sensitive both to the language and to the needs of their audience.

So point 2: Poetry is not a medicine.

When I became the inaugural Poet Laureate for the English county of Cheshire in 2003, I accepted the post with a mixture of honour and trepidation. It is always nice to receive acclaim for what you do: it’s a recognition both of your art and of your perceived ability to do it. But it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. I accepted the position on the understanding that: (i) although I would have to write a number of “core commissions” based on the county’s calendar of events, I would not produce tarted-up advertising jingles masquerading as poetry; and (ii) I would try to broaden the scope of poetry across Cheshire, and beyond to include those many disenfanchised “closet poets” who I believed existed in the community but who were not currently being given a chance to express themselves.

At that time I already hosted, in a local pub, a successful bimonthly open-mic event called Poems & Pints and this template soon spread much more widely as my new profile enabled me to give poetry the publicity it had lacked before. Suddenly, the world seemed awash with poetry – and with poets! – and the platform was a public one of acceptance and opportunity. I don’t think this diminished in any way what poetry “is” (whatever that means).

There was, it is true, a great deal of (how shall I say this politely?) mediocre verse unveiled by all of this, but there was also a tremendous amount of excellent stuff produced. All of it had its place and all of it was allowed the right to be. The great thing about the public forums where such work began to be heard was that they were wholly inclusive and democratic: no one was excluded or left without a voice. And it was based on that most essential of qualities: passion.

I tell you this not because I think public recitations of poetry are a panacea for the world’s ills, or indeed that they can suddenly change attitudes to literacy and reading, but because nothing changes without opportunity. Occasions like Poems & Pints in Cheshire and now Poetry @ Reddits, a monthly open-floor event I host in Grahamstown, have proved to me just how valuable such opportunities are. And the best thing of all is that they are simply fantastic events to be part of!

Point 3, then: Poetry is fun.

So, finally, I would offer these two pieces of advice:

  • Give yourself a taster: if you are not sure about poetry readings – either listening to them or taking part yourself – resolve to go along to one soon and find out. If you are ever in Grahamstown on the last Friday of the month you are always welcome at Poetry @ Reddits, and there are many similar events in other places.
  • Read lots of poetry, and especially modern, contemporary South African poetry. This will not only help to develop your own poetic voice if you are a writer (rather than one carried over from 19th-century England) but also give you immense pleasure.

The debate about whether poems written for public performance and consumption are better or worse than those written for the page and for quiet, meditative engagement is one that will rumble on. “Better” and “worse” are flexible terms anyway. Why can’t we enjoy both?

I know I do.