Why do people go to poetry readings? We have access to books, DVDs, your friend's band's show tonight, Facebook, dinner parties, The Real Housewives, tap dancing classes, movie theaters, long drives, symphony orchestras, YouTube, picnics in the park... Why would anyone go to a poetry reading?
I have been to bad poetry readings, and they have a special way of defying the laws of time and space--tripling the length of a minute, increasing the average temperature in a room, decreasing the amount of oxygen in an air molecule. You start to question your life, what you could have done to deserve this imprisonment. Your discomfort, your embarrassment for another (a kind of backhanded empathy?), plain old boredom, come out in physical tics, a jiggling of the leg, a longing glance at the exit.
It has been a long time since I have been to a bad poetry reading, but having had this experience, I would never pressure someone to go to a reading, and I happen to co-host a reading series (more on this in a bit).
I don't have an "eat your vegetables" approach to poetry. You shouldn't force it on yourself to feel like you're acquiring culture, it shouldn't be a drag. However, I will say that I would correlate language to nourishment--if you're consuming a lot of badly made stuff, with artificial ingredients , it's bound to be hard on your body and soul, your consciousness. A tabloid might be that sugar-frosted treat you need once in a while, but it shouldn't be all you're getting. And I don't just mean the words you read, it's all the language going into your buzzing brain, including TV, conversations, websites. (Hmm, well maybe that implies poetry is like the vegetables... but I still won't be the one to make you eat them, though I think vegetables are delicious.)
So back to the original question: why do people go to poetry readings? The simplest answer is: To see a poet they admire read their work. And yes, when you know the work, it is great to see what the poet sounds like, looks like, what he/she says. But still: poets can be cagey people, most are not performers, the vast majority are reading from a printed page. Unless the poet is a consistently funny person or a powerful reader, it's a very simple activity people are signing up to experience. (I should add here that I'm not talking about slam or performance poetry, which I haven't had much contact with.)
I had the great fortune to inherit the Monday Night Poetry series at KGB Bar. The series was founded in 1997 by David Lehman and Star Black. They shaped it into a happening where people who would normally crowd a university or library venue come read casually, without pay, in a little downtown bar. John Ashbery would read once a season. Over the years, lots of well-known poets have stopped by. I remember seeing James Tate read there when I was a student, Billy Collins read just last year. If there's a musical correlate, it's the divey place the jazz musician goes after hours, after the big show.
To wrap another bow of a metaphor around it: I think of it now as a great garden or a well-loved house. The foundation work has been completed, the bulbs have been planted. My job (with fellow poets Laura Cronk and Michael Quattrone) is to tend, weed, water, cultivate. People know about it and are happy to come. Sometimes there are fantastic surprises, as when Ann Carson dropped in last December to read new work, courtesy of Mark Bibbins, or when artist Kiki Smith turned up to see collaborator Mei-mei Berssenbrugge read along with Ann Waldman earlier this year.
I remember being acutely touched at some point last fall after rushing downtown on a Monday, through the crowded subway. I had been reading emails, reading documents, scanning websites, listening to the radio, exposed to advertising, all day. I arrived panting, and there was no doubt some inane song lyric making its little loop in my mind. And people had come from all sorts of corners in the city, through some variation of what I had been through that day, stuffed with other people's words, to stop for a moment and listen. Just to listen to the poems. This takes a lot more energy than it may seem like it does. There wasn't hype around the event, no one was tweeting about it, no one was taking our picture, there wasn't money attached, aside from people buying drinks. There was something devotional about this.
I think it's important that the series happens in a bar, without the weight of academic discourse or the well-intentioned clean feeling of an event sponsored by a non-profit. (I don't mean to imply, though, that these kinds of venues are not valuable.) A bar is a place where unexpected conversations happen, a place of relaxation, sometimes a place of excess, an undefined kind of place. The presence of the physical bar is a sign of intimacy, a gateway, the bartender the gatekeeper. People feel less pressured to get something from the experience, and end up getting something from it. It's OK to laugh.
I have had a few people confess to me that they don't know how to listen to a poetry reading, they tune in and out. I tell them that I do too, sometimes more than others, it's like listening to music. I think most people do tune out at some point, at least a little bit, but then the mind snaps to attention when it's being given something to take away, even if the meaning isn't apparent. Perhaps its an image, a new combination of words. As Keith Waldrop said at a reading he did recently, "Don't worry if you don't understand what I'm saying, because I don't either."
Something happens when poems are read out loud, especially when it's the person who wrote them doing the reading, and it's different than hearing a story. This is another answer to the question of why people go to poetry readings. I don't mean that there's always a single "poetry effect". Sometimes people are funny, sometimes there is an elegy in the air, sometimes it's a voice making a rhythm you don't want to stop. Something also happens when a room full of people are listening with their full attention.
There have been a few times when people who have dedicated their entire lives to reading and writing poems have read and something intense was cast into the air, and everyone felt it. I'm thinking of when Jean Valentine read a single long poem (Lucy, which was published as a chapbook by Sarabande) and Keith Waldrop's reading, among others. I don't mean to recur to mysticism, probably there's a physics equation in the Platonic world for the energy that's transmitted or shared between poet and listeners. The only word I am coming up with at the moment for the feeling of it is "brimming".