I met with a couple of local poets today to talk about readings coming up at the village literary festival. Over barm brack and tea, we tossed some poems about to see what we might read. I continue to feel ambivalent about poetry readings. On the one hand there is something about speaking the words, putting them into the realm of sound, and the listening ear. But not all poets are good speakers of their work, and some poems ask rather for the intimacy of one-on-one relationship to words on the page. It is often said that the poem only comes properly to life when spoken aloud. I don't necessarily agree. There is another kind of voice that sounds in the ear when one is alone with a poem on the page. It is an aspect of the unique relationship we build with a writer, so that the words, if we make a connection to them, sound in us as though we ourselves are the very source of them.
As a child, I would sometimes copy out poems - verses that I liked - and feel as though it was written by me - that I owned the words as much as the one who composed them. If words are bread of a kind, then in a sense I did own them for I had ingested them and they were now a part of me (one benefit, had I known, of learning by heart). Some of A Child's Garden of Verses did sustain the soul-life of me in ways I could not have articulated.
The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shown in the sky, and the pail by the wall
Would be half full of water and stars.
This was probably not the first of such experiences, but the pail that was "half full of water and stars" was an initiation into the power of metaphor. It was a poetry-shock: something could be itself on a mundane level, and yet be a doorway to magic and otherworld. Luckily I did not hear it read out loud at school. When teachers read verse they put on a 'poetry voice' and deadened it.
I remember the poet George Szirtes at a reading, saying that he did not do "cabaret." I think I understood what he meant. He was there to read his poems, not to deliver entertainment or do Performance poetry. I squirmed a bit, though, because the truth is that I find poetry readings with an element of performance much easier to take in. This is partly because poetry is often dense with meaning and also because (having M.E.) I am cognitively challenged and brain can get quite suddenly overloaded. But mainly I think it is because not all poets are able to stand fully in their words and deliver them. Well, and why should they? The words we write are sometimes better than we are, and when written they are (and really should be) gone from us.