IRON Press editor Peter Mortimer muses on the strange rituals of live poetry readings.
Those of you out there who regularly attend live poetry readings will recognise a certain sound when I describe it.
The sound comes from some audience members at the end of certain poems whose nature is – how shall we put it? – slightly enigmatic. The poet reads the final line – let’s for sake of argument say it goes, ‘so the black absence was folded into the crease of destiny’. There follows a short silence, which in turn is followed by a barely audible ‘mmmm’ noise.
This ‘mmm’ noise implies is that the listener fully appreciates that the poem is full of deep significance without quite yet knowing what that significance is.
I have uttered this same ‘mmmm’ noise myself. I utter it almost involuntarily. If I’m honest I must confess it means I don’t know what the poem is on about, but dare not admit to same and sense at least some response is called for. So the ‘mmmm’ noise seems a safe bet. When several audience members emit the ‘mmmm’ noise , it can sound like a short Buddhist mantra.
Unlike with songs, at a poetry reading, the audience rarely claps each individual piece, which is considered bad form. Or maybe the reason’s because the total audience at most poetry readings could fit into a phone box (anyone remember phone boxes?), which would leave the applause sounding somewhat hollow.
I’ve organised many readings over the years. The poets themselves, much as I love ‘em, can drive me mad. You ask them (plead with them?) to limit their slot to 25 minutes and two hours later with many of the audience either in a catatonic state, dead, or already propping up the bar in the Dog & Duck next door, the poet is still ploughing on.
‘I’ll make this my last poem’ is often the most heartening sentence I hear at a live reading. Unfortunately that final offering is often the length of Paradise Lost.
Poets are normally thought of as sensitive flowers, their antennae responsive to every aspect of the world around them., So how can they be so curiously self-absorbed? Witness the upsurge of Open Mic poetry nights when aspirants are invited to read their latest magnum opus.
Often a published poet is also on the bill, but the aspirants have no interest in this person.
The Barnsley poet Ian McMillan tells the tale of when he was the guest poet at an Open Mic slot event and read to an audience of minus two. There were only two people in the audience both of whom read their own work in the Open Mic first half.
By the time Ian McMillan got up to read in the second half the two had gone home.
People who bemoan the fact that the general public can no longer remember poems by heart should realise that neither can poets – not even their own work.
In maybe only five per cent of readings do the poets perform without the text in front of them. Normally their nose is glued into the book, often to the detriment of their voice projection. Imagine the uproar if singers did the same thing at a live performance.
The opaque nature of much modern poetry explains the often lengthy introductions by the authors at live readings. “Let me give you some background to this poem……” they begin, pointing out various vital references which the poem in isolation is unable to put into context. Pity the poor soul reading the poem in the book thus denied such background and facing possibly only obfuscation.
Some readings have been heady intoxicating affairs indelibly etched on the memory. I’m unlikely to forget Allen Ginsberg, Ted Hughes, Basil Bunting or Hugh MacDiarmid, all at Newcastle’s famous Morden Tower poetry venue, built into the old city wall and hosting the world’s best poets since the 1960s (alas, now sadly in decline).
Poetry slams have become the modern vogue and this has seen the line between stand-up comedians and poets often blurred. Inject enough energy into your slam performance and even doggerel can sound appealing. Though as much modern poetry is still po-faced the arrival of slam is welcome.
Some poets are so excruciating in live performance that they should never be allowed out of the garret. They could take a leaf out of amateur football’s book, where players turn out on windy Sunday morning park pitches with no expectation there will be any spectators, but enjoying it anyway. The activity, they realise, if for their own enjoyment.
It is so, alas, just so for some poets.
Despite claims for it to be ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’ poetry is very much a minority activity. Most people at a live reading write poetry themselves. Imagine a barber where 90 per cent of his customers were other barbers. I often awake and wonder why after 42 years of publishing the stuff, organising live readings and – probably worst of all! – even writing it but I continue, but it’s unlikely I’ll stop now. And that which we love, we also most readily mock.
Though I will attempt from hereon in to cut back on the number of times after a live poem’s final line, I am heard to utter the ‘mmm’ noise.