I do “get” poetry readings

Ruins of an ancient theater in Stratos, Etolia Acarnania, Greece (from wikimedia)

Ruins of an ancient theater in Stratos, Etolia Acarnania, Greece (from wikimedia)

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article called “I Don’t “Get” Poetry Readings” at HTMLGIANT, explaining why its author (Bethany Prosseda) doesn’t “get” poetry or poetry readings. Not that I want to get into a big argument about “getting” poetry or poetry readings, but…  I do “get” poetry readings, and so there are a few things I want to say.

But first, a few disclaimers:

  1. I do not know who Eric Dolphy is
  2. I did not read the article Prosseda refers to, “I Don’t ‘Get’ Art”
  3. I did not watch the film Prosseda refers to, Tiny Furniture
  4. I think Prosseda’s article is more about not “getting” poetry than about not “getting” poetry readings, but there are a few things I want to say about that, too
  5. I grew up in a rural community where there were no poets and no poetry readings

First, regarding poetry readings:

A poetry reading is an event where poets read their work aloud (and I’ve even heard some poets recite their work — always a treat). It’s a chance for us to listen to poetry — which is first and foremost an oral art form — as we have been doing for millenia. That is all.

Yes, some readings are full of people who are there because their literature professors require them to attend. As someone who, before her sophomore year in college, didn’t even know there was  such a thing as a reading (see disclaimer #5 above) where writers would read their work aloud, I’ve always been grateful for that literature professor who required me to attend a reading. Thank you, professor, for helping me find my tribe.

Now, about poetry.

I don’t “get” abstract art. This does not mean abstract art isn’t accessible to me. It doesn’t even mean I don’t like some abstract art. It means I haven’t spent much time studying or interacting with abstract art. The same can be said for me and NASCAR, yoga, micro-finance, chili cook-offs, embroidery, circuit design, wood carving, and fantasy football, amongst many, many other things. It does not mean abstract art, NASCAR, yoga, micro-finance, chili cook-offs, embroidery, circuit design, wood carving, and fantasy football have gone underground or forgotten to send Christmas cards.

Yes, it’s true that when asked “What’s your favorite poem?,” many Americans will answer with, as Prosseda notes, “works like, ‘Casey at the Bat,’ ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends,’ and every now and then a piece by Poe, Plath, Whitman or Cummings.” She argues that this is because “a shift has occurred in poetry. It seems that at some point, poetry went underground.” She points out that all of these poems are several decades old, and all of these poets are dead.

And this is where I have to disagree (at least partially. If by “underground” she means that some poetry is difficult to understand on the face of it, she’s right — some poetry has always been that way. Then again, some poetry is not intended to be “understood” so much as heard and/or experienced). I believe Americans are apt to cite “Casey at the Bat,” Shel Silverstein, Poe, Plath, Whitman or Cummings because those are the only poems they’ve been exposed to. Last time I was in high school and college (admittedly, it’s been a while), we did not study even one poem or poet who was living and working at that time. Did you?

Perhaps if K-12 and college curricula included the work of living poets, we would all be able to cite some work by living poets. (*P.S. Updated to say: I’m not saying this as an indictment of K-12 and college curricula — heaven knows there’s a lot to teach! My point is that without exposure to something it’s hard to like, love, ‘get,’ or cite it as your favorite).

Meanwhile, those of us who love poetry will continue to read it, study it, listen to it, and “get” it. Amen.

8 thoughts on “I do “get” poetry readings

  1. I will second that Amen! i never once was exposed to any poetry by a living poet until i was in college and took creative writing, and that is around when i learned of poetry readings as well. now i teach creative writing, and i require my students to attend a poetry reading each semester as well–and, when we can, we have LIVING poets (because it would probably be kind of creepy to bring in dead ones…) come read on campus and talk with students and meet in their classrooms. we recently had a poet come, Todd Davis, who used to coach college basketball before delving into his poetry career–my students were blown away. a poet–like emily dickinson, robert frost, whitman–can like BASKETBALL??? and can even Write about basketball! their minds were blown. i hope i can show them stuff like that every semester.

    • This reminds me of a story one of my po-friends told me. He teaches in community college, and one year (many years ago) he was teaching some WCW and explaining to his class that WCW was also a family doctor in New Jersey. Someone in the class said, “You mean Dr. *Williams*?? He was my doctor!” Epiphany. I want to read the basketball poems! Off to google Todd Davis…

  2. Funny, I read her article this morning and almost wrote a response. You nail it, though – saved me the trouble. One thing I find deeply disturbing though, is your lack of familiarity with Eric Dolphy! He’s one of my favorite jazz artists and has great music to write poetry to. Here’s a good place to start: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgzFnXszRzM. Hope you enjoy.
    Best,
    ~Marc

    • I confess, my jazz education is sorely lacking. Thanks for the intro to Eric Dolphy, and I’m glad the “getting” it post spoke to you.

  3. I began a long and angst-fueled response to the HTML “essay,” but stopped myself with the realization that these arguments are worn and tired. I don’t “get” (aka: appreciate) monster trucks rallies but I’m not going to rant against them. The world is large; there’s room for many passions. Can’t we all just get along, or, at the very least, let each other pursue individual interests without judgment?

    • I know, I know… I felt a little bit like that person in the comic: “Someone is wrong on the Internet!” But this time, I just needed to say it :).

      Could not agree more that we should all get to love what we love sans rants! Amen.

  4. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few, and different kinds. A professor had his book of jazz poems published last year and read a number of his pieces at the signing. The local bookstore is amazing for that kind of thing. But we also have a pub in town that has Slam Nights every week which can be great fun. There is everything from terrible to brilliant, and random audience are recurited to act as judges. There’s even a sacrificial poem read at the beginning to calibrate the judging. It becomes an intense communal experience.

    • I think that’s what I love most about readings — the gathering of community.

      I admire people who do slam poetry. It’s an amazing art form!

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