Poetry Readings: A Love Story

As an audience member, I approach poetry readings with mingled feelings of hope and dread. These occasions can be truly marvelous or unspeakably awful.

If a poetry reading has any hope of success, certain rules must be observed. The introduction must be brief and free of blather. The poet must be sober and mindful of the clock. The audience, too, must do its part: it should be unplugged, properly fed and caffeinated, and savvy enough not to clap after every darned poem.

If a reading is awful, it is, of course, the poet’s fault. The poet has talked too long between poems, used the ridiculous, sing-song “poet voice,” or announced at the beginning, “You can hear me without the microphone, right?” The people in the back want to scream: Use it! Use it! Use it! It’s not there just to look pretty! But there’s always some knucklehead in the second row who nods obligingly, and the dumb-show begins.

A good reading remains a tantalizing possibility. It’s sort of like birdwatching: when you see and hear an actual fire-veined poet in the flesh, your heart does backflips. You thank the stars you showed up. You are not blinking, and when you get home, you pace around for a while before you can settle down.

Of the countless readings I’ve attended over the years, these three poets stand out as the real deal:

  • Lucille Clifton, reading in her adopted hometown of Columbia, Md., in the early 2000s. Clifton, who died in 2010, was the rare poet who left audiences wanting more. On this occasion, she was on stage for no longer than 30 minutes, her half of a two-poet reading. Her poem based on the molestation she experienced as a young girl elicited gasps from the audience. It was not a slam poet’s self-indulgent shock poem; it was “moonchild,” a heartrending study in restraint, published in Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000. When she closed with “won’t you celebrate with me,” she changed the pronouns so her signature poem about an individual woman’s survival against the odds became a communal celebration of endurance. I was not the only one who wept. Clifton had that much grace, that much power.
Lucille Clifton
  • Louise Glück, reading at the University of Virginia in 1980 or 1981. The packed auditorium fell into rapt silence as soon as Glück opened her mouth. Slim and elegant in a black dress, she read her poems, many from The House on Marshland, without a word of commentary. You didn’t have to be Helen Vendler to know this was a poet headed toward greatness. Glück, whose very cool umlauted name means “luck” in German, is a brilliant presence on stage.
Louise Glück
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, reading at the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library, in the late 1990s. The reading took place in a cramped space with not enough folding chairs for all the people who wanted to hear the eighty-year-old poet and leading voice in the Black Arts Movement. Tall and commanding and wearing a colorful turban, Brooks read beneath the glaring light of a local community-access TV station. She read old poems and newer ones, some in sonnet form and some in free verse. With perspiration trickling down her face, she was as fully alive and present in the moment as anyone I’ve ever seen. She died in 2000. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the applause rocking the Cambridge library as she took her final bow.
Gwendolyn Brooks

The Road to Culpeper

A torn flag hangs
From the balcony of a two-story
Shack; fields of corn give way

To huge piles of trees, abandoned
Bulldozers. The prison looks
Magnificently calm.

At nightfall my heart goes
With the Crescent trundling souls
South to New Orleans.

My breath goes with
The deer filling my windshield.
We live live live live

What greater news than survival
On this road or any road
Taking each of us past

A few small graveyards
The smell of fertilizer
The shriek of a train.

–Hilary Holladay
Rt. 615 toward Culpeper

My Strangers in the Night

Earlier this year I interviewed a very talented artist, Jessie Meehan, who told me that she gets much of her inspiration in the moments right before she falls asleep. In that soupy space between waking and sleeping, she sees geometric shapes that eventually find their way into her magical, brightly colored paintings.

Jessie smiled as she told me about this. She didn’t mind talking about such things, and you can bet I was taking notes like crazy.

Her disarming revelation got me thinking about the mishmash of people who sometimes show up in my bedroom late at night. There I am, nearly asleep, when suddenly–behind my closed eyelids–a bunch of strangers begins shifting and moving toward me. Their faces are very clear and distinct. They are not speaking, just gliding around and coming ever closer. The sight of them can wake me up, but they don’t scare me. Not much anyway.

Sometimes, when I’m really relaxed, a thought seeps into my mind: “They are here, so I must be falling asleep. That’s good.” Then poof, it’s the next morning, and the cat is batting at my eyelashes and I’m awake again.

Who the heck are they? 

My guess is they’re strangers I’ve encountered somewhere or another–on the sidewalk, in a store, hurrying through an airport. My brain took a sort of screen shot of each one of them and filed it away. Now there are hundreds of thousands of them, and they slide into view when I’m very briefly able to observe the workings of my own mind.

Just to make things spookier, I suspect that some of them, maybe many, are people from other eras, other lifetimes.

Why? Because when I try to think about them–and it’s hard to concentrate and really think about them–I get glimpses of old-fashioned attire, long-ago faces.

They’re not from here, one might say.

Are they ghosts? Ancestors? A kind samaritan who gave a begging, sixteenth-century version of me a crust of bread? A Prussian soldier who lowered his bayonet and waved me away?

And so I live with them, my strangers in the night. Maybe someday I will paint them in shades of red and orange and green. Or maybe one of them will paint me.

Through the Trees
Through the Trees I Watched the Night Pass By-acryllic on canvas by Jessie Meehan