The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 07, 2010

Graywolf Guest Post: The Poetry Reading a very distinct animal. A decade or so ago, at a celebration of the poetry reading series at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge Askold Melnyczuk (then editor of Agni magazine) drew both horrified and gratified gasps when during his tribute he dared to claim that, “Most of us do not like poetry readings.” Was he right? In part, I fear he was. Below are my top five warning signs that a reading might get into trouble. 

  1. Hair awry—you end up being transfixed throughout the reading by the constant dance between hand, hair lock/s, and head toss.
  2. When the poet talks about how little time he/she has, it is a sure sign they will run over. “Just six more,” they say, as if to reassure us.
  3. The throat clearing that presages multiple water gulps throughout the reading; exacerbated by water being placed in an inconvenient spot so the poet has to disappear from view (behind lectern) to retrieve it.
  4. The unprepared reader—papers all over the place, multiple copies of books toppling off the podium, which leads to a painful running commentary on the progress in finding the next poem, or worse, an awful embarrassed silence during the frantic search for the poem.
  5. Poetry voice—why, when it comes to reading poetry aloud, do so many poets adopt a pseudo-religious incantatory voice that actually serves to flatten the meaning into a single-toned chant that numbs the senses and the mind?
Of course, Askold was joking. He knew he was addressing a crowd who always hoped for the best from an evening of verse. For a good poetry reading is truly memorable, a gift to be treasured. A single poem well read can bring a crowd to silence and awe. Just last month, for example, Tony Hoagland read at The Loft here in Minneapolis. His poems ranged from humorous to serious, sometimes within a single verse, and Hoagland’s audience of more than 225 people hung on his every cadence. I can still remember a reading James Tate gave in New York several years ago, read in a completely authentic voice that was still distinctly “poetic.” One of the most precious poetry evenings I experienced was when Seamus Heaney read to a rapt crowd at the Guthrie Theater; he knew just how much to explain his poems and how much to let the poems speak for themselves. Readings by such poets as Molly Peacock, Mark Doty, Robert Pinsky, and Yosef Komunyakaa are always a treat. These poets let their poems soar. I relish the younger Graywolf poets who can hold an audience—Thomas Sayers Ellis, Catie Rosemurgy, Tracy K. Smith, to name a few. In the deepest sense of the word, the best poetry readers know they are entertaining. Their performance honors the audience, and the audience knows it, and responds gladly with its most precious gift: attention.

Fiona McCrae is the director and publisher of Graywolf Press.


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Wm. Anthony

Have witnessed all of these signs, but admit the "poetry voice," is by far the most evident and damaging.

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