Poets for Haiti

Having once sat through a reading featuring 100 poets – and only had to look for a fire escape once, when the reader began by stating the poem was in honour of her daughter’s menarchy – I reckoned 19 in an evening was a bit of a cinch. The Queen’s Hall hosted this extravaganza to raise funds for Haiti (and Chile), and, wonder of wonders, it only ran overtime by seventy-five minutes. Poets, as Don Paterson sagely remarked, couldn’t run a bath left to their own devices.

None of the poets were wearing poet clothes, unfortunately

For the permanent record, the score minus one comprised Ron Butlin, Gillian Clarke, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, Aonghas Macneacail, Frances Leviston, Robert Crawford, John Glenday, Imtiaz Dharker, Don Paterson, Jackie Kay, W N Herbert, Kathleen Jamie, Rody Gorman, Sean O’Brien, Vicki Feaver, Andrew Greig, Douglas Dunn and Carol Ann Duffy. Even with such a line-up of luminaries, there are a few things about poetry readings that I just don’t understand. Why do poets begin by telling the audience what the poem’s “about”? What is that “poetry noise” that audiences make – somewhere between a sigh, a moan and an intake of breath, signifying – sympathy? comprehension? It’s like the opposite of a laugh.

The highlights were John Glenday and Frances Leviston, with a special mention to Jackie Kay for doing a poem about Ma Broon’s vagina. Hopefully the entire event has been recorded, as I’ve not heard Kathleen Jamie read a poem like “The Queen of Sheba”, or Don Paterson read his humanist funeral poem, with such elan. Among the eye-witness moments that will be left on the editing floor if it has been recorded for posterity were such intriguing asides as Don Paterson confessing to his adoration of Bioshock 2; Carol Ann Duffy referring to Scotland as “your country” (does this settle whether she’s a Scottish poet or not? Catherine Lockerbie then referred to Duffy herself as “our” laureate); and a letter from Gordon Brown, which I think was in spondaic hendecasyllables.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Poets for Haiti

  1. Rob

    The poetry noise means something like, “Mmmmm, that was really deep and this is my considered response!”

    • It’s like the false laugh just before a Shakespearean pun. It’s actually a class/sex thing (like a monkey whooping) and means “I am the kind of person who likes poetry and would be interested in mating with individuals of the same persuasion”

  2. Patricia Ace

    Fame at last! I am the only poet out of 100 that gets a mention from that historic reading in St Andrews. If you want to read what sent Stuart searching for the fire escape, it’s the title poem from my chapbook, First Blood, published by HappenStance Press ; )

    • And we’ll let that advert through. I have a particular animadversion to pointless beautification when it uses linguistic tricks to avoid actual reaching out, through language and all its flaws and fireworks, to the unknown. There were many, many other poets that I found as gilded that day, and don’t start me on haikus (“I’ll just read three”), looking-out-the-window poems, and the whole genre I now christen “The New Solipsism”.

  3. I have heard quite a few poets be very amusing about the poetry noise (and the whole business of possible discomfort at the end of a poem read aloud). Hugh McMillan is very entertaining on the subject and I think I heard Don Paterson once cover it too. It is awkward…you’re in a room with a lot of people (if you’re lucky) and people want to show acknowledgement of some kind. Personally I’m all for applause. We can think and clap.

    As for why poets talk about what a poem is ‘about’…well, it’s that or just dive from poem to poem (and doing that might seem like a good idea but it gives an audience little time to prepare…for what? For the amazing creation that is the poem about to be read, of course!). Also most good poets (though not all of course…) are really interesting speakers and people just like to hear them talk/elucidate/waffle. It’s all part of the event. Otherwise you’d just get a cd.

    But you didn’t really want answers to those questions did you…Too late.

    • That said, I remember hearing Robin Robertson read at WORD in Aberdeen and he just paused, read another poem, paused and it was utterly compelling. Of course poets can talk well, and I’ve been lucky enough to chair many of them, but when a poet pre-empts the response of the audience, I find it patronising. A wee bit of blether is fine: an exegesis is tiresome.

  4. It can be compelling when one poet does it perhaps but if everyone did it it would be dull, predictable and then, in the end, just as tiresome as some of the over-blether perhaps.

  5. Patricia Ace

    I suppose the ‘classic’ way to read poetry is poem after poem without any preamble from the poet and I have also been compelled by this approach. I find most audiences, however, especially those who are less familiar with reading or hearing poetry, really value having the poem put in some sort of context by a brief introduction – maybe alluding to where and how the poem originated, the form it takes – there’s no need to explain it, but it’s a lead in and gives the audience time to settle, fidget, adjust, laugh between bouts of deep concentration. Nowadays, at a reading, I will ‘introduce’ some poems and go straight into others.

    The ‘poetry noise’ is surely to do with resonance or recognition – “Ah yes, I know this too…” mmmm, gasp, sigh, moan…

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