Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reading rainbow

In the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry Katha Pollitt remembers her former teacher Elizabeth Bishop. It's a good essay, especially the part where Pollitt writes about going to see Bishop read at the Guggenheim in the late 70's:
"Bishop is sometimes described as a notoriously poor reader of her own work—flat, low-key, lacking in presence. After all, she was a short, gray-haired woman who wore nondescript wool skirts that fell below the knee, the antithesis of what a poet was supposed to look like. I thought she was a good reader—I dislike theatricality in poetry readings, and that super-sensitive breathy chanting thing poets get into where every line ends with an upward lilt like a question. But more than that, her reading was a kind of gift; it made me see that whatever way a poet reads his or her own work is fine, is, in fact, perfect, because the way they read is part of their sensibility, their own personal expression of their poem. No one else can have that relation to those words: it’s unique. It was interesting that Bishop said 'rainbow, rainbow, rainbow' in a straightforward, even way, and not 'rainbow! rainbow! (pause) RAINBOW!' She let the words do the shining. The way she read said: the words on the page are the poem, I’m not going to slather a lot of emoting on top of them, I’m going to let them speak for themselves. True or not, this insight has helped me not to be nervous about giving readings: however I perform is all right, I tell myself, because I am the writer reading my own work."

I also dislike, as Pollitt calls it, "theatricality" in poetry readings. It makes me crazy, in fact. Years ago I interviewed Mark Doty for Between The Lines and he said something similar. Artifice in poetry readings is a drag. I think it contributes to why so many people dislike poetry. I've seen poets I really like and admire read and their work in such a cringe-inducing way that it was as if they were crumbling each one of their poems into a ball and throwing it in the trash in front of me. I'm not naming names, but one poet in particular was such an impatient and unpleasant prima donna during his reading that even though I bought his book at the reading I still haven't been able to bring myself to read it.

The best reader/reciter I've ever had the good fortune to listen to is Dorianne Laux. There is a seriousness to her reading - a reverence for the work, for sure - but she is not without humor and humility. Words possess a seemingly effortless grace when they come out of her mouth. She recites a lot of work by other poets (her capacity for memorization astounds me) and I have discovered some really wonderful poems this way. In fact, some, after hearing Laux recite them, seem to lack a little something when I later seek them out on the page. That, I think, is the gold standard of readings: to leave a poem better than when you found it.

1 comment:

Laura said...

"...that super-sensitive breathy chanting thing poets get into where every line ends with an upward lilt like a question." Like how you read poetry.