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Things That Have Interested Me

Reading the Room

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
15 September 2007

My prediction is that, as far as poetry readings are concerned, the old days of anarchy and amateurism will soon be over, and that producers and directors will take control. The familiar recipe - get half a dozen people together, ask them to read for 20 minutes each, cross your fingers and sit back - will come to seem not good enough. Forward planning will be demanded. The producer will increasingly choose the programme. Rehearsals, presentation, lighting cues and so on will become standard requirements, and this will begin to affect who is chosen to read, and what they do when they reach the rostrum.

Does any of this matter? Indeed, is it all to be welcomed? Around the time when I first began to take part in such readings, in the late 60s, a lack of professionalism was rather to be expected of the poet. It was a badge of honour. The grander, bard-like performers of the past - Yeats on the radio, Dylan Thomas on the stage - were regarded with suspicion. There is a send-up of Thomas's performing style in the film of Terry Southern's Candy, in which Richard Burton reads on stage wearing a cloak, with a wind machine set up in the wings. Autumn leaves are blown across the stage.

Auden's self-deflating public manner was in conscious rebellion against this sort of vatic self-presentation (in Yeats, for instance, about whom Auden was critical). Few people, as far as I recall, thought very highly of Auden's reading style at the time, but it was certainly very much Auden. And it was professional in this sense: Auden knew his poems by heart, and only brought his books along in case he might forget. He reckoned he knew how much poetry an audience could take in at a time, and made periodic breaks accordingly.

Professionalism can be viewed as a kind of politeness or consideration of the listener. To be inaudible is not professional, nor are other forms of incompetence, such as making people wait while you rifle through your papers, or wildly overstepping your allotted time. To beg the indulgence of the audience in some small matter may be considered charming, but nobody wants to feel imposed on.

What, then, is there to fear from a higher general standard of professionalism in the future? What poets are allergic to is a whiff of calculation in the style, an excessive touch of narcissism. We are performers, when we read or recite, but we are not performers in the sense that an actor is a performer.

We do not, for instance, dramatise the emotional events of a poem as if they were unfolding before the eyes of the audience. We have written the poem. Now we are reading or reciting it. Something about our manner should never forget that we are in front of an audience, presenting something we have written. We may become emotional, but not to the extent of - say - slobbering and weeping and wiping our noses on our sleeves. We may be exuberant and spontaneous, but not to the point of spontaneous combustion.

Certain tricks of the radio actor's voice are forbidden to us - funny little gargling sounds or strictures of the windpipe, conventional ways of signalling that there's an emotional passage coming up. We don't like these vocal athletics anyway, when we hear actors reading poems, and we like it even less when we witness other poets moving in that direction.

We don't by any means have a uniform approach towards reading. For instance, I like, when reading my own or anybody else's work, to leave the listener with some sense of the form. So I normally pause at, or somehow mark, the end of a poetic line. But I noticed recently that a friend of mine takes a much more naturalistic approach to the sense. He runs lines on, and punctuates them in the middle, not (as people tend to do) to cover up the rhymes, but to give the meaning a degree of precedence over form.

Poets enjoy a high degree of control over their own work, and at poetry readings they are accustomed to presenting themselves as they please. They don't expect to be coached or groomed for performance. They enjoy the benefits of their as-it-were amateur status. What might look a little shambolic to a director is perhaps an expression of an independent spirit.

From the poet's point of view, the best poetry or literary festivals are those at which one gets to meet fellow writers, and to spend time with them over a few days. A modest festival hotel, at which one can hang out, makes an important contribution to the experience. Smaller cities are perhaps at a natural advantage over large ones, and the genuine literary festivals are much more interesting than events that have been taken over by PR.

The great festivals, like the great little magazines, always have some driven personality at the helm, and have their periods of greatness as well as their inevitable tendency to decline. London has had some distinguished poetry reading series, but it has always seemed to me a city too large for that sense of festival camaraderie. The cherished labels on our mental luggage are from elsewhere: Rotterdam, Toronto, Barcelona ...

As for poetry readings on the smaller scale, they play an important part in poets' lives. Randall Jarrell's devastating remark about the American scene ("The gods who took away our readers have given us students") does not apply here. We have some readers - more readers, perhaps, than we have students. And this world of poetry readings is where we meet and get some sense of them. To write for a pub-room audience may be too small an ambition. But to write something, to have something up our sleeve, that we can put across to a live audience, something that will yield up its meaning on first acquaintance, something to please, surprise or amuse - that's by no means a bad idea. And to remember always that we should not in our poetry be muttering under our breath to ourselves alone - that must, for poets, be a good habit of thought.

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