How did we get from there to here? There was a time when poetry readings were delivered in quite, considered mode, in front rooms and small quiet halls, in places where people with hats would sit and not, where poets would stumble and mumble and read with their heads down tight into their books rarely ever engaging the audience’s eyes. Poetry would seep. It would flow into the air like a kind of fog. Readings were attended because, why, who knows? Maybe because it would be an opportunity to see the face behind the word. It would be a chance to show solidarity with an arcane art. It would allow poetry lovers to hear how the lines were meant to fall, as delivered by their creator. That would be someone who might also add a few introductory remarks of illumination and explanation. A scene setting for verse. If you needed such things.
Some poets could do this and some did it fairly well. Dylan Thomas had the reputation although I only ever heard him on record. I did witness A G Prys Jones in action and Harri Webb, John Tripp, Glyn Jones, Gwyn Jones, John Idris Jones, Gwyn Thomas, Bryn Griffiths, Roland Mathias, Raymond Garlick, Tom Earley, and others central to the then Anglo-Welsh cannon standing up in halls and side rooms and having a go. Most of what they did was unedifying, poetry that seeped out and stumbled across the floor, that had you reaching for the relevant book to get a handle as to what was going on. I’m talking here about how they presented their material, of course, and not the material itself. John Ward turned up on stage once in a stylish working man’s donkey jacket. A breakthrough I thought. No chance. The organiser castigated him for not looking the part. Bloody hell. The part. Poets as bankers, poets as ministers. There had to be a better way than that.
Nobody seemed to care much about stage presentation, working out what they were going to read (their set lists), finding ways of doing this without spilling their books all over the place and dropping papers on the floor, about actually engaging with their audiences. It took a new generation of stand-ups like Adrian Mitchell and Brian Patten to come into wales and show the world the way to go. Even then the shoe gazers on the Welsh circuit carried on more or less as they were.
My interests were actually in the European avant garde. A place were writers made sounds for the sake of hearing how their voices came over in the actual air. Ernst Jandl. Bob Cobbing. Henri Chopin. Edwin Morgan. ZZxxbghghgh hick hooo ahahhh. To do this you had to push your voice out to the back of the hall, had to arm wave, have confidence, engage your audience by looking them in the eye. Famously we brought all this to the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre in the early 70s and blew the sedate Cardiff poetry world into the corners. Some of it anyway.
For me that approach led directly to the one I use now. Standing up, using the voice, making it work for me as a prat of the poem itself. Adrian Mitchell told me that you can use your voice to slide across a faulty verse once or twice but that after a time it gets so you have to fix things. This has proved to be the case. Public readings always lead me into rewrites. I always use text, too. My poetry is a written thing. For some present day stand-ups that isn’t the case.
These days however, I often long for the old ones. Those times when you could quietly move through your work, sometimes explaining sections, letting the words themselves rather than the way they sounded do the work. Hard to manage amid contemporary expectation. Occasionally I announce that for my next reading I will sit. Sit and read. Harder to project then, less likelihood of histrionics, but still delivered with strong voice and for the audience rather than at them . Works too.
I’ll be at The Promised Land doing some of this again on the 5th December, 2011. I might sit on the other hand I might also stand.
That's not me but the late Henri Chopin at the top of this posting.