Harriet, Harriet hard-hearted
Harbinger of haggis
Beautiful, bemused bellicose butcher
He wants you back he screams into
The night air like a fireman going
To a window that has no fire except
The passion of his heart
I am lonely,
It's really hard
This poem sucks
and I try and imagine me standing up there and "performing" a poem and I go, er thanks, but no, thanks. Or, if you want a couple of real-life examples, the ever-so-twee Pam Ayres (still on the go – I wonder how many grannies got her latest collection for Xmas?) and the Dylanesque-looking punk poet John Cooper Clarke (still on the go too – I thought he'd crash and burn years ago). The thing about both of these is that they write humorous verse – radically different – designed to be performed.
Both of these poets is capable of communicating with their target audiences and there is a necessary immediacy to their verse, but I'm not sure you could call either of them a great poet. They choose humour typically because humour is popular, because it engages an audience on an emotional level which is exactly what good poetry should do. This is not to decry what they do. If you ever get a chance to hear Clarke perform 'Evidently Chicken Town' do – if you can handle the 83 expletives. (Actually you can because I've added links at the end of this blog). I say 'perform' to distinguish what he does from simply reading a poem. There is a whopping great difference.
There is a point of view that suggests that by reading his own poem the poet is retaining control of it in some way whereas a poem on page can more easily become the property of the reader. I can get that. It's hard for me to read any of John Cooper Clarke's poetry without hearing his distinctive voice; I also read them a lot faster than I would anyone else's. Strangely enough though my favourite performance of one of his poems was by the actor Christopher Eccleston in the excellent TV play Strumpet which opens with a belting performance of 'Evidently Chicken Town' but then Eccleston is a great actor.
In an interview originally published in The Argotist magazine in August 1996, Adrian Henri, best known as one of the Liverpool poets, makes an interesting point about 'performance poetry':
JS: Now in performance poetry it's the personality of the poet, theatricals, gimmicks, which are the main thing whereas spoken poetry, however much the poet is bracketed as a performer, is essentially a communication process.
AH: Yes. Pure Performance poetry often becomes the springboard to something else. I'm thinking of someone like John Hegley who's become an alternative comedian in all but name. That kind of performance poetry is defined almost by what happens to people who do it. Which is not true of other poets; poets who are concerned with writing and their craft but at the same time happen to be rather good at projecting their work.
It's a good point. In my head there is a clear distinction between performers like Clarke and Hegley, entertaining though they are, and regular day-to-day poets like me.
I've only ever been to one poetry reading – as opposed to performance – in my life. It was at The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow. It was 1977. (Now it's the Centre for Contemporary Arts, full of negative space and very little poetry). Unusually, I had been asked to submit a poem to a competition they were running. If memory serves me right the editor of Effie wrote to me to tell me about the request or maybe he submitted the poem on my behalf; it was a long time ago. I didn't win but the top half dozen or so poets got to stand up and read some of their work. My poem got reprinted in a commemorative booklet which I can't find any more so I couldn’t even take a guess at what the poem was. Suffice to say, I wouldn't have been up there for very long. I've never written anything longer than an A4 page and most of my poems from that time were lucky to make ten lines and ten short lines at that.
I found the experience a strange one. This was the first time in my life I had been around other poets (scarily ordinary looking) and, not one to push myself forward, I don't think I spoke to anyone and left as soon as the do was over. I didn't much like the poems that got read but I've never really enjoyed hearing poetry read out loud. The teachers used to make us do it at school and you know how that goes. I like to take my time over a poem, re-read it, think about it. At a poetry reading you get one shot at it and it's never enough. I have the same problem with a lot of modern classical music; works by the likes of Mark-Anthony Turnage or Harrison Birtwistle are good examples. You can't just listen to them and get them; there's too much going on. I've pointed out that performance poetry works well if it's humorous but a poem is not a joke. Most jokes are one off experiences; you don't go away afterwards and meditate on them.
I've been to book launches where the author read a bit out of their forthcoming release. They were okay because I could buy the thing and read it at my leisure. I've never thought of writing as a social thing. If someone reads a poem, am I responding to the poem or the performance? Writing is private. Reading should be also. There, I've said it.
I'm not the only poet who isn't crazy about hearing the sound of his own voice. Philip Larkin didn’t either:
I don’t give readings, no, although I have recorded three of my collections, just to show how I should read them. Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much— the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing there and their and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the “score” that doesn’t “come to life” until it’s “performed.” It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.
(If you are interested there's a news report concerning the recent discovery of a set of tapes where Larkin reads all the poems from his three collections from Sky News).
I'm sure the pair of us are in the minority but, what the heck, we miserable gits need to stick together. I've heard Larkin read his poetry in that lugubrious, dare I say glutinous, baritone of his and I've heard a few others – Ezra Pound jumps to mind – but mostly I've hated them. They can't read to save themselves. Simply because a person knows how to write doesn't mean he knows how to orate. It's not that I'm afraid of crowds or shy – I've done a fair bit of public speaking in my time – but I personally don't think of a poem as something that needs to exist off the paper, which is strange because I quite often read my prose out loud to make sure it flows; rarely do I feel the need to do that with a poem.
And yet there are poets who enthuse about reading poetry out loud, even taking it as far as comparing it to a religious experience:
I don’t go to church, so poetry readings are the closest thing I have to a communal spiritual experience. I think something happens when we come together and honour one another with our attention and break breath. I sometimes define poetry as “chiselled breathing”, but maybe for the purpose of metaphor, the better word is “leavened”. Poetry is leavened breathing. - Jeffrey McDaniel, Poetry Foundation article
I guess I think that reading poetry out loud is an art form all by itself. It is its own medium and, as such, has its own laws and possibilities, different from silent reading to oneself. Some poets write good poems and also channel poems out loud very well. Some poets are better at one or the other. Channelling poems out loud (giving poetry readings), for me anyway, enacts a kind of service not entirely unlike the service poems provide. That is, if successful, a poetry reading can create the zikr or zakhor, that remembrance of our primordial condition of embeddedness in God-head, which certain ancient poetic communities practised. – Li-Young Lee
I'll be honest, I don't get it, but then I've never had a firm grip on spirituality or metaphysics; I have enough trouble coping with things intellectually or emotionally.
I'm very serious about my writing, as you all know, but I'm not so serious as to dig my feet in and say that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. The main problem, certainly round here, is I never hear about poetry readings; maybe if I'd been exposed to more I'd have developed an appreciation. Sure there's the odd one in Edinburgh or some place but who the hell is going to travel all the way Edinburgh to listen to poetry? I'm really an antisocial pig when all's said and done.
Let me leave you with a few clips of the aforementioned John Cooper Clarke. If you click on nothing else do check out the Stephen Hawking one but it'll make more sense if you listen to the first clip, the one at The Comedy Club, first.
'Evidently Chicken Town' at The Comedy Club – sans music (much better) but the sound is a little rough.
A slightly cleaned-up 'Chicken Town' from the film Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt.
Stephen Hawking is a fan. Just click on the link – you know you want to.
'I Married a Monster from Outer Space'
'I Mustn't Go Down to the Sea Again' - from the film Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt. This was new to me – not quite so frenetic though I have no idea what the couple are all about.
'Beasley Street' – an Old Grey Whistle Test performance with a backing band.
And, as a total contrast, for all the grannies out there, Pam Ayres reads 'Akaroa Cannon' on Countdown – you have been warned. My wife had never heard of her and you should have seen her face when I played the clip. Is it just me or did Benny Hill not used to do a character who talked just like her?