Monday, August 03, 2015

`The Poetry Recital Chortle'

I have never been to a satisfactory poetry reading. Not one has failed to embarrass or bore me. Poets invariably get in the way of their poems. There’s the plummy-voiced Richard Burton, the tortured James Dean mumbler, the aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart. Bad poets long not to be writers but actors or politicians – that is, famous and influential. A reader this weekend sent me a video of a contemporary American poet reading, and I deleted it at 2:12. In theory, good readings are possible. I’ve heard recordings of Eliot and Yvor Winters that sounded like the work of intelligent grownups. Dylan Thomas was insufferable, on the page and on vinyl. The poem is about the words on the page, not the words in the poet’s mouth, despite all the arguments for poetry as an oral art. Maybe for Homer but not for W.S. Merwin. I don’t want my concentration on the words interrupted, unless, of course, it’s a lousy poem. In an interview from earlier this year, Geoffrey Hill nails it nicely: 

“I don’t want it to be a sort of simpering drizzle. I really do want there to be some sense of order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem. I think one of the most dreadful sounds in all of modern culture is what I will call the poetry recital chortle, and most contemporary poems seem to me to be written in order to arouse the desire of the listener to chuckle appreciatively. To be blunt, I can’t really stand that.”

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