Stand-Up Poetry

Last week I read poetry with a comedian at a hair salon slash art gallery.  An unusual setup, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing — poetry readings are generally boring as hell.  They come in two forms — the poet plus open mic, and the fancypants poetry pair all by their lonesome.  I don’t know which is worse; the former is a more acute pain, the latter more a dull ache.  Both are mostly psychological torture, bound to a chair and suffering a tedium bearable only in small doses.  Maybe you do come out of them a better person, though.  Think electroshock therapy.  It’s only enjoyable when it’s a poet you already know and love, preferably reading poems you already know and love.  Or if it’s a good slam poet.  But I digress.

Sharing the stage with a comedian is surprisingly like sharing the stage with a musician.  No matter how good you are as a poet and performer, no matter how bad they are as a whatever else they’re doing, it feels like following the Beatles.  Poetry pales.  And comedian Barry Holiday was good — he made us laugh for a solid half-hour.  So, up next as a lowly poet, what do you do?

The only option seems to be becoming a comedian yourself, so that’s what I did.  It’s surprisingly easy to be funny on stage.  I’m not sure what it is — all laughter, whether nervous or pure, is infectious, maybe.  Or maybe something just happens with all that focused attention, some cosmic coalescence, some inherent irony in the very act of standing in front of a crowd with a mic and trying to entertain them.  It seems even easier as a poet, too — you know a comedian’s trying to make you laugh, but when you find yourself face-to-face with the rare and reclusive poet, you don’t know what to expect — laughter is an extension of surprise, after all, and what better blank slate of anticipation does the general public have?

I started out by asking how many in the room actually read poetry, and 3 out of 30 hands flew up.  So I focused on the majority, and gave them the inside scoop on this business, which is a pretty funny enterprise.  The sighs, the snaps, the golf claps.  The inferiority complex.  Subtle jabs at other poets that even they might not recognize.  At the end of the set, it was pretty clear that the audience enjoyed my banter more than my ballads, but there’s really nothing wrong with that.

It got me thinking again about poetry on the stage — what’s the problem?  Why is an off-key folksinger cycling through the same three chords more entertaining than the best of poets?  So often I focus on how to make the performance better that I gloss over the obvious fact that poetry is simply not meant to be performed in the first place.  Music, comedy, drama — those are performance arts, and no matter how often it gets grouped in with them, poetry never will be.  So of course the only way poetry can beat them is to join them — which is why slam poetry always drifts into comedy or dramatic monologue.  And maybe that’s why the best slam poets often drift back toward the page — the page is where poetry really lives.

Before you hit me with history, recitations of Chaucer and the bards of the Parisian Court, it’s true that poetry was born orally, a millenia before Guttenberg.  Music, comedy, drama, and poetry, all share a common ancestor, but each have evolved over thousands of years to become specifized within their own niche.  Poetry is the private, internal communication between an individual writer and an individual reader, in which the reader’s own breath and heartbeat become the artist’s medium.  Whenever we try to take it back to the stage, we’re like dogs trying to wrestle a grizzly bear.  Yes, we’re all caniformia, but that doesn’t make it a fair fight.  And evolution cuts both ways — put that cliched folksong on paper with a score, and try reading it for pleasure.  Bears don’t make good housepets.

In the end, the poet is left with two options:  Don’t perform at all, keep it on the page and keep your dignity.  Or accept that poetry isn’t meant to be done standing up, and incorporate elements from other performance arts.  Tell a joke, sing a sonnet, speak in tongues.  Don’t be so stubborn that you put us to sleep.

3 thoughts on “Stand-Up Poetry

  1. Why is poetry such a dud on stage? It’s because it’s so literal, and so indirect. With music, drama, dance and visual art, there’s a level of non-literal interpretation incumbent upon the audience: they’re not being read something — they’re being shown something. Poetry doesn’t generally involve people in it, nor does it rely upon interpretation in the same way that the other arts do.

    There’s also some level of cult of personality associated with the other arts. The image of a musician, visual artist or even an actor has something romantic associated with it. The image of a poet is, I’m sorry to say, Allen Ginsburg.

    Take all of these factors together and it’s easy to see why you, me and almost everybody else finds poetry readings abhorrent.

  2. Ginsberg was cool, though, he played the guitar…

    I think it just comes down to stubbornness. You could make poetry interesting on the stage, but you have you actually perform, which for some reason poets think is “getting in the way of the work.”

  3. It’s true that if I know the poet and love his or her work, I’m probably going to enjoy the reading. But I’ll never forget the first and (sadly) only time I saw Michael Donaghy read. It was at the West Chester conference, and all day there was a buzz about this guy. I hadn’t read a stitch of his poetry beforehand. But I was blown away. He recited his poetry, most of which was dramatic monologues in the tradition of Browning. As anyone will tell you, he had a great flair for performance that probably came from his other life as a musician. His poems are anything but one dimensional, which makes his success at performing them all the more amazing.

    The bottom line to the whole problem of readings, I think, lies in the reader/performer (whether or not they have a knack for presenting their work) and how the poem is meant to be enjoyed. Who’s to say we can’t write some work for the page, and others for the stage? Why create solely one type of poem? In my opinion. poets like Donaghy strike a perfect balance. B.H. Fairchild and David Mason also come to mind–their work begs to be spoken aloud, but it doesn’t lose any of the effects we’ve come to expect from poetry as it’s evolved.

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