poetry readings

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Listening Two Ways at Poetry Readings

falling awake

This blog isn’t subtitled “Updates on a Free-Verse Life” for nothing. It would be a lie to call it “Updates on a Rhyming-Couplet Life.” I’m about as devoid of rhyming as a guy can get.

Confession: When I listen to a poem, I often don’t even notice the rhyme scheme. Instead, I notice “pleasant sounds.” Somehow I feel a bit guilty about this, but without the visuals, I cannot “see” how these rhymes are lining up, and the slant rhymes vs. true rhymes get muddled in my head because I’m too busy listening for meaning to bother with the sounds. They’re more background music, in many cases darn good background music (elevators need not apply).

Of course, if I have a copy of the poem in front of me while the reader reads it, it’s a whole new ball game. But that’s seldom the case when it comes to poetry readings. It’s all on the ears.

As for the eyes, some listeners might wisely choose to close them. After all, some readers’ gestures and facial expressions can distract you from the meaning.

But here you are saying, “Hold on, Sir. Even with your eyes shut, you can be distracted–by the way the poet reads the poem.”

Point taken. But wouldn’t it be double jeopardy if the reader were both histrionic with the voice and overdramatic with the body? Lord.

What about quiet readers, you ask? It’s a trick some believe in: Read more softly and the audience will listen for your words harder. They’ll lean in.

But… what if you overdo your trick and speak so softly that even the most disciplined listeners miss words? In this way, both sotto and voce can amount to a trap (albeit a Latin one, which is lovely in its ancient way).

Maybe I should just admit it. I am an undisciplined listener. Exhibit A is this poem by Alice Oswald. I heard her read it on-line thanks to a link provided by my virtual Goodreads friend, Trish, on her blog, The Bowed Bookshelf. (Scroll down and give it a listen.)

I loved it on first listen, and I noticed how sonorous it was to the ear. But rhymed couplets? I whiffed on that observation.

Of course, you’re forewarned here, so the listening test is ruined for you. Still, if you’ve been to readings, you probably have learned to listen either two ways (unlike me) or one (like me). I listen for enjoyment and comprehension. I’m not, at the same time, mentally analyzing what’s going on with the poem.

Whether I am the exception or the rule, I cannot say. How about you?

Note: After following the above link for a listen, enjoy Oswald’s poem below. It’s taken from her book of the same title, published by W.W. Norton & Company.


 “A Short Story of Falling” by Alice Oswald
It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again
it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower
and every flower a tiny tributary
that from the ground flows green and momentary
is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail
if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass
to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip
then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience
water which is so raw so earthy-strong
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along
drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song
which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

Advice for a Poetry Reading


Inside of two weeks before my first poetry reading, I often solicit advice from experienced poets who have read many times at many venues. Part of me asks about myself and the poems I should choose. The other part asks about the crowd. Or maybe “the crowd” (accent on quotation marks). What I’ve heard so far:

  1. It’s possible no one will show up. (Do you read to no one if “it” arrives and fills the assembled seats with its nothingness? Does a tree in a forest primeval make a sound if it falls beyond human ears? Discuss. At the mic. Or possibly the mike.)
  2. Crowds can be fidgety. Remember that as you decide on poems for the reading.
  3. Have fun.
  4. Start and end with stronger poems.
  5. Mix types of poems–funny, sad, long, short, reflective, assertive. Repeat and contrast, repeat and contrast.
  6. Introduce each poem with a brief anecdote. Accent on brief.
  7. Have fun.
  8. Don’t read too fast. In fact, you should think you’re reading a bit too slow. That will be about the right pace.
  9. Project and enunciate.
  10. Practice reading your poems beforehand. Not a little. A lot. Especially if you’re a tyro.
  11. Have fun.
  12. If you sell copies of your book (or even a single copy of your book) afterwards, give thanks. It’s gravy. Don’t expect dozens of listeners to beat a path to your signing table.
  13. If you’re featured with another reader, give her/him the option of going first or second.
  14. If your fellow featured reader is the hottest poet since the King James Bible writers, call in sick.
  15. Are we having fun yet?

Tips Picked Up at a Poetry Reading


I fought Boston traffic (without even broaching the city limits) to reach Salem for a reason. I wanted to learn. Learn by listening to a poetry reading. And learn I did.

In Ocean Vuoung, Sandra Beasley, and Martha Collins, I got three distinct readers and styles for the price of one. This at the 8th annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Here’s what I picked up:


  • Sit in front if you can. As you know from the movies, human heads can be distracting as all get-out.
  • Don’t sit too far to either side unless you want a neck ache.
  • Put your program on the floor, lest it noisily slip off your lap mid-reading as mine did (oops).


  • Ask your introducing host to remind audience members about putting away their binkies (read: cellphones). As in off. In their pockets and out of sight. For the entire reading. (Remember: You’re the good cop. You just get up and read.)
  • Thank everybody, just like the Academy Awards. And don’t forget your fellow speakers (if you have any). You are not worthy (even if you are).
  • Beware oversensitive mics that pick up every dry-mouth lip lick and mouth sound.
  • Speak slowly. This is not the Indy 500. Poetry and checkered flags are a bad mix.
  • Dress relaxed. Feel relaxed. Look relaxed. (And if at all possible, be relaxed.)
  • It’s OK to draw out words a bit in the name of enunciation. Just don’t overdo it. That’s not drawing out in the name of enunciation. That’s drawing out in the name of the rack, a Medieval torture device.
  • Be yourself, even if no one knows who you are. Like dogs sensing fear, listeners sense naturalness (or lack thereof).
  • Keep the context for each poem brief and to the point. Make it interesting.
  • Good humor is always welcome. (Plus the sound of ice cream truck bells sends listeners back.)
  • Don’t be overly dramatic with your gestures, your mouth, your bulging eyes. If listeners start to focus more on your body than your body of work, you’re as cooked as the Cratchit family’s goose.
  • Be sure listeners know when your poem is finished. Without some signal (voice, head bow, looking up while slightly closing book), some endings can be awkward in an “Is That All There Is?” kind of way. Like Wiley Coyote, they just fall off a cliff.
  • Look at the audience now and again. And, hey. There are people to the right and to the left (just like the Do-Nothing Congress), too.


  • Buy a book. Get it signed. Say something nice to the poet. This is a small tribe we live in. We need each other’s support.

Going to a Poetry Reading in the Witch City

mass poetry

OK, I’ll admit it. Not only have I never been to a poetry reading, I have never even considered it. The very idea of it is rife with clichés, for one thing. You know, some hippie-type who forgot time wearing an Existentialist, black turtleneck and beret while muttering navel-gazing notions into a malfunctioning mic.

Whoo-we! Sounds like fun!

Seriously, though, I wondered about the listening challenges as an audience member, too. I like to read as I hear, and poetry readings are one-trick ponies where you listen and make do with only one of your senses. No following the bouncing ball. No sing-along-with-Mitch screen behind the poet, showing each line as it comes up. Just me and my two ears. On our own like grown-up eustacian tubes.

But I’m told that I will have to do readings myself now. Me. A guy who speaks for a living but is afraid of speaking before groups.

Impossible, you say? Hardly. I know plenty of experienced teachers like myself who have no problem performing for students (on an Academy-Award-winning scale, too) but pale at the very thought of addressing a group of adults. (Perhaps it would help, then, to consider any group of adults as overgrown children?)

In any event, with my wife by my side, I will be attending the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem tonight where I will hear not one, not two, but THREE poets read. They are Jennifer Beasley, Martha Collins, and Ocean Vuong. Three styles, three approaches, three mentors. Surely I will gain SOMEthing from the experience. I even own Vuong’s latest book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (meaning I can get it signed either before or after the reading). No doubt I will also have an opportunity to buy Beasley’s or Collins’ work.

With this initiation, the thinking is, I will be able to go boldly where many poets (especially the hams) have gone before: to a reading where I will have to be the sage on stage reading poems from my own book.

But first things first–attending this first.