Some of the longest hours I have endured were spent in lecture halls, clubs and coffee houses, listening to poets read their work. Such occasions are exercises in communal delusion. The poet is a narcissist, his poetry is awful and the audience pretends to hang on each precious syllable. Or, worse, they genuinely love his deathless verse, and knowingly chuckle and swoon. I attended a “reading” by the late William Gaddis, in which the novelist spent an hour telling us, hilariously, why he hated readings and refused to give them. It was a hoot, and so is Wendy Cope, who nails these hideous events and the rituals surrounding them in “A Reading”:
“Everybody in this room is bored.
The poems drag, the voice and gestures irk.
He can't be interrupted or ignored.
“Poor fools, we came here of our own accord
And some of us have paid to hear this jerk.
Everybody in the room is bored.
“The silent cry goes up, 'How long, O Lord?'
But nobody will scream or go berserk.
He won't be interrupted or ignored.
“Or hit by eggs, or savaged by a horde
Of desperate people maddened by his work.
Everybody in the room is bored,
“Except the poet. We are his reward,
Pretending to indulge in his every quirk.
He won't be interrupted or ignored.
“At last it's over. How we all applaud!
The poet thanks us with a modest smirk.
Everybody in the room was bored.
He wasn't interrupted or ignored.”
Such behavior is nothing new, of course. Egomaniacs have always been indulged. Hans Brochner (1820-75) was a Danish philosopher, and a friend and distant cousin of Soren Kierkegaard’s. In his memoirs of the author of The Concept of Dread, Bochner recounted this dreadful poetry reading:
“S.K. once told me a curious story regarding his old uncle. The old uncle had a passion for writing verses, which were equally dreadful in both form and content. One day he came up to S.K., and after a brief preamble he brought forth a bundle of his verses, which he asked his nephew to read aloud. They then seated themselves next to each other on the sofa. The old man sat down, leaned back, and put on his glasses in order to follow the reading, evidently to make sure that nothing was skipped. Soren K. sat slightly bent forward with the papers, probably choosing this position in order to keep the old man from observing the treasonous smile on his face. He read the poems to the very end in a raised voice and with great pathos. The old man was completely delighted; touched as he was by the beauty of the verse, tears ran down his cheeks, and he parted from S.K. with the warmest thanks. I have often heard my old uncle’s verses; they were altogether peculiar, and had in particular the wonderful property that, with very minor changes, they could be used – or at any rate, they were used – on the most widely differing occasions. Thus the old man had once written a verse on the occasion of a granddaughter’s engagement. Not only was it used again for another engagement where, however, the personal situations of those involved were very different, but it was also intended to have been used, with only minor adjustments, on the occasion of my appointment to the university. That it was not used the was only because the old man had not yet learned it by heart on the evening when, a bit earlier than we had expected, my appointment was announced in Berlingske, and we happened to be at a party at the old man’s house. Sometimes, at his urgent request, the verses were sung by his guests. A melody would then be chosen which, with the use of a Procrustean method, could more or less fit the verses. It was hilarious to hear: first a large number of syllables all had to be swallowed in one mouthful, as it were, and then one single syllable had to be stretched out in accordance with Holberg’s prescription. But to the old man’s ears it always resounded like the loveliest of harmonies, and his face shown with delight.”
(From Encounters with Kierkegaard: A Life as Seen by His Contemporaries, collected, edited and annotated by Bruce H. Kirmmse; translated by Kirmmse and Virginia R. Laursen; Princeton University Press, 1996.)