The live poetry scene in Los Angeles can improve and attract a larger audience.
A typical poetry reading in Los Angeles attracts a small audience composed almost entirely of poets. In this city and elsewhere, no small number of people say they enjoy poetry, but few go to readings. An explanation for these facts is likely to include competition from other forms of entertainment, but sooner or later the issue arises of whether the Los Angeles poetry reading scene deserves its neglect.
In 1820, in "The Four Ages of Poetry," Thomas Love Peacock wrote: "A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions." To extrapolate heedlessly, poetry is for entertaining Conan the Semi-Barbarian (think Whitman's yarp, Homer's Illiad), and that's bad. The people who don't go to poetry readings are right. The Los Angeles poetry scene deserves its neglect because poetry is obsolete.
Soon after Peacock published his essay, his friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote an answer. In "A Defence of Poetry" (1822), Shelley argues: "The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry... Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Shelley justifies poetry because it is beneficial (think Ernesto Cardenal, Carolyn Forché, or Roque Dalton). Poetry is good for you, and the barbarians are those who don't like it.
Twenty years ago, when I taught poetry to high school students, many of them called poetry "gay," a quality Shelley or Peacock might label "obsolete." (Imagine the beat-downs that would be inflicted on two long-haired guy friends named Percy and Peacock in the average American high school.) In response, I first offered versions of Shelley's defense of poetry, which is the one I'd learned in college. Few arguments are more likely to arouse the disgust of high school students than "It's good for you."
The next definition of poetry that I proposed to my students is that it is a form of writing in which the lines begin and end at a particular point (rather than prose, which can be scrunched into a column inch or stretched across the page without changing its meaning or the way it sounds when read aloud). In addition, poetry frequently makes use of the playful, memorable elements of language, such as rhythm, rhyme, and metaphor. This amoral definition, which I got from Henri Coulette, clearly allows that Metallica's lyrics, narcocorridos, Tupac Shakur's raps, and the work of Billy Collins are poetry. It also lets the Los Angeles poetry scene off the hook: Poetry is popular; it's only the good kind that isn't popular, and that's because people are barbarians. In more polite company, the part about "barbarians" can be phrased genteelly.
Although Coulette's definition (not including the conclusions I draw from it) seems to be the most accurate, it is Shelley's version that generally prevails. Many poets are heralds of freedom and witnesses against evil, and that is great. I do not blame Shelley or other heroes for neglect of poetry events in Los Angeles. I blame their followers.
To the detriment of poetry here and elsewhere, it is now generally accepted that poetry readings improve us. Rather than improving audiences, however, I think many Los Angeles poets and hosts of readings should take a lesson from the barbarians and improve their performance. This alone, I admit, probably will not make poetry performance as popular as karaoke, but it could make a difference.
Before I continue, let me admit: I am a poor performer. I look at my shoes. My voice is so soft, people can't hear me. I haven't published
much. I have had no success worth mentioning. My only qualification for offering advice on how to read poetry to a live audience is experience as an audience member, so my advice shines a spotlight on my hypocrisy. Having gone to poetry readings across the Los Angeles area for a while now, I have made a list that, if it were observed, could tempt people away from their couches and home entertainment centers. OK, that will never happen, but if there is a prolonged power outage, observance of the following suggestions to hosts of readings could help.
First, start on time. Or at least not an hour, or even an hour and half late, as I have witnessed. Start no later than you have to. If your audience keeps showing up later and later, do something about it.
Second, keep things moving. There will be constant pressure to allow people to drone on for too long. Don't let it happen. Keep people on their time limits, especially the bad poets, who generally are the ones who go over their time limits. Focus always on pleasing the audience rather than the performers. Give breaks. When the audience gets tired or
antsy, stop and give people time to relax. I have witnessed poetry readings in which people were shamed for getting up and leaving during long readings in which no one knew how much longer the whole thing would go on. This behavior is justified, I think, by the notion that poetry is good for you. Don't be a church lady; don't monitor or judge the endurance of others.
Third, imitate more popular forms of live entertainment. Act professional, even if almost nobody is a professional in the poetry business. Don't let spats, cliques, or other nonsense mess up the show. Pretend there are unclaimed grants and unfilled teaching gigs out there, people Pretend Bill Moyers will want to interview you after seeing your video on MySpace. This is a good kind of pretending, because it leads to better punctuation.
The hosts of poetry readings, however, are usually not the worst offenders. Readers, come fully prepared, more on time than not, and willing to extend yourselves to audiences. Come with what you are going to read memorized or nearly so. Do not flip through your book or papers and decide what to read. Do not read from a cell phone, computer, or other digital device, because if you do you will soon be telling the audience to wait a minute while you scroll down to find that ending you just wrote. If you read from a screen and are not Stephen Hawking, you are not prepared. Don't be drunk, disorderly, or self-indulgent. Bring your glasses. Read so that people can hear you, but don't scream at them either. Speak clearly. Put silences between words, and pronounce each word clearly. Most of all, show that you understand that the time limit applies to you.
Readers could also take one simple step that, I think, could make the audience's experience much better: Read something familiar and good. At a literary poetry reading, this means reading a classic poem or a good poem by a widely read poet. This could be anything from an Elizabethan sonnet to William Carlos Williams or a contemporary. There is no requirement, after all, that a reader read only his or her own work. A milestone or two through a reading makes it a much easier road to travel.
The Los Angeles poetry reading scene may rate Shelley over Peacock, but "obsolete," as well as other words and phrases, such as "barbaric," "quaint," "an art form that retains, like opera, a set of devoted followers," do ring in my ears from time to time after a reading. On the other hand, "that was good" and "I'm glad I went" also do. And if hosts and readers would focus more on making audiences feel not only unimproved but also glad they came, the live poetry reading scene in Los Angeles may no longer be as neglected as it is now.