In this age and day, it is good to read a poem that starts with the line “How kind people are!” Not just read it, but with-an-exclamation-point read it, as if the idea needs to shout in these times where boorishness, shamelessness, and lies are king.
Connie Wanek’s poem, “Audience,” brings to mind poetry readings, where folks are, as a rule, kind. And rare. And often few and far between–but, by definition, still an “audience.”
The denotation is deliciously limber. My wife is an audience, for instance, when I unpack my troubles on her to divide them in half. It is a key part of a spouse’s job: relief through division.
My dog can serve as audience, too, tilting his head like Nipper, the old RCA Victor dog, as I go on and on, Mark Twain-like, about the damned human race (hint: no one’s in the lead).
But let’s return to Connie’s audience, shall we?
by Connie Wanek
How kind people are!
How few in the crowd truly hope
the tightrope will break.
Rare’s the man who’ll shoot the Pope
or throw his shoe at a liar,
though joining in—that’s natural.
An audience of St. Paul’s sparrows
is easily bored, easily frightened.
One blasphemy and off they fly.
Even a polite dog will snore
though he’ll rouse to follow
the refreshments with a calculating eye.
But people, especially Minnesotans,
pull their sleeves over their watches
and want to find a way to like you.
If they can sit through winter’s sermons,
they can sit through you.
Sometimes poetry can send you in peculiar directions of your own making. It may be that the poet would be alarmed to hear it. Or it may be that she’d cry, “That’s exactly what I was thinking!”
Stanza one, for instance, reminds me of hockey games where fans wait out the game in hopes of a fistfight on ice. Or Nascar races where folks anticipate an exciting car crash. Stanza two, with the thrown shoe, brings images of President G. W. Bush–a.k.a. “another kettle of fish”–dodging a shoe some foreign journalist tossed at him during a press conference. Give him this. Bush had the moves if not the credentials.
Stanzas three and four bring more docile behavior to the fore. In five, the calculating eye of the dog eying refreshments cheers you. We love consistency and predictable behavior, after all, in our best friends.
I can’t speak to Minnesotans, having met none in my life. That they check their watches while finding “a way to like you” speaks highly of them, though. Trained by sermons, the joke goes. And sometimes a little humor is just the right touch when it comes to the tricky part of a poem (i.e. the ending). The days of saying, “And the audience lived happily ever after” are over, after all.