Poets Reading Their Own Work

Some time last week,I was standing daydreaming in the shower (all my best ideas seem to come to me in the shower) with BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme, as a faint noise in the background. Then, I became aware that somebody was speaking in the dull, and strangely offputting drone that I always associate with public poetry readings. I emerged from the shower to hear the end of a poem which was being recited in the customary monotone, and all the memories came flooding back - the hours of boredom,the stifled yawns, the pretence of knowing what the hell the performer in question was talking about....
These were candidates for the T.S. Eliot Prize and each was being given the opportunity to recite one of his or her poems for the delectation of the listeners. Guiltily, I thought that I was probably alone in my revulsion, but it seems that by the end of the week, Radio 4 had received a flood of letters and emails from listeners making exactly the same point. One poor woman declared that she had almost been prompted to drive into a brick wall, and begged the BBC not to do it to her again....
Many years ago, I used to write poetry myself, and I have also been known to read it in public. In fact the Poetry Performing Circuit can be one of the few ways in which a poet can make some kind of a living from his or her work, since they sure aren't going to make any fortunes from publication. Mind you, I always tried to be careful what I chose to read, perhaps because I was also writing for radio and theatre at the time, and was well aware of what made sense and what didn't when read aloud. It was at about this time that -working for an organisation called The Arts In Fife - I was commissioned to set up a series of public readings in Kirkcaldy. One of the performers was a distinguished novelist who had better remain nameless. I loved his written work, but his reading of it (pages and pages, head in book, droning monotone without pause or variation) was hideously boring. Mind you, I was young and foolish, and had forgotten to check the local football fixtures, so the actual audience upon whom this horror was inflicted was really very small indeed.
The BBC's current efforts rekindled all those memories. But why do poets - great poets at that - still think that a public performance needn't involve any kind of effort to be entertaining? Do they really think that their words are so ineffable and immortal that we will be bowled over by the simple sound of the syllables?
Could it be that, because the poetry reading is still, essentially, a middle class activity, they are lulled by the silence, and the polite handclapping at the end, into thinking that they have actually entertained everyone?
Bring back the hook, I say, the one that used to be used in the old Glasgow music halls, to yank unfortunate performers off the stage.
Mind you, it's not all doom and gloom. Last week I also caught Seamus Heaney reading one of his own poems on another Today programme, and found it to be completely magical, his voice lending an extra and very welcome dimension to the poem on the page.
I remember being lucky enough to tutor an Arvon course with the brilliant, kindly and clever Scottish poet and novelist, the late Ian Crichton Smith, who wrote in both Gaelic and English. On the last night, he was persuaded to read some of his Gaelic poems. Few of us understood what he was saying, but it was still a wholly enchanting experience, musical, emotional and spellbinding. I don't know how he did it but I wish some of last week's poets had taken a few lessons.


As a poet, and an avid reader, I have to say that I very much enjoyed my leisurely stroll through your blog...it was time well spent; entertaining and enlightening. I invite you to visit my own, should you care to.