canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Poetry Readings - Stand Up and be Counted

by Tom Henihan

The American poet Robert Lowell said, "Poetry is an event not the record of an event" and I believe all poets would do well to keep this statement in mind. This is especially important for those who propose to read their efforts in public.

Some time ago I went to a poetry reading in Victoria, BC where the featured poet performed the remarkable feat of reading for forty-five minutes without ever using a metaphor, not even by accident. What is even more remarkable is that this "poet" teaches poetry at a college here on Vancouver Island.

That someone so conspicuously lacking in talent would call herself a poet is impertinent. That she can read for half an hour without using a metaphor and never risk censure by the audience is distressing. That she teaches poetry to college students is ridiculous.

But let me be quick to point out that she does not stand alone. There is a multitude of men and women loitering in the wings with reams of clipped prose, waiting to knock our socks off. There are the self-aggrandizing poets, waving their hands to a cadence or rhythm only they can hear. The charismatic poets who, basking in the glow of their own charm, clap their eyes on the audience and smile to lend emphasis to a particularly witty or pertinent line. There are the podium leaning, page-flicking, teacher poets who have fallen in love with the sound of their own voices. And of course the sublime poets who arrive out of the ether with Buddhist chimes, ukuleles and shaman drums. In almost all these cases the poem takes second place to the poet. The text is merely incidental to the performance.

Many see this proliferation of poets as a good thing but I see it as a negative development. Most of these so-called poets wouldn’t recognize poetry if it jumped up and had its way with them at a Canada Council picnic. Rant isn’t poetry no matter how noble the sentiment may be. Poetry should inspire not instruct or lead us around by the nose. It works its magic to greater effect if the emphasis is implicit rather than explicit. Too often a work is lauded for the sentiment expressed without any consideration given to its artistic fulfillment.

Another ominous entity that is making a comeback in poetry circles is the term "riff". Of course everyone knows that the superficial connection between jazz and poetry has been "on the road" since the forties or fifties. The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has this to say about jazz." It is the hardest music to play that I know of and it is the highest rendition of individual emotion in the history of Western music."

Ironically, the use of jazz idioms where writing is concerned usually suggests a license to be careless. It is my suspicion that most writers who use the term riff when introducing a poem don't even listen to jazz. If they did they would know that a lot of hard work precedes those riffs and if they are not up to the mark, fellow musicians and jazz aficionados don't keep that fact a secret. With poetry however, its hugs and kudos all round no matter what kind of a show has been put on.

Poetry readings should not be afforded the same cozy protected environment of workshops and poetry groups. We don't invite an audience to the theater to watch the players rehearse. A performance is a lot more decisive if there is something at stake and poets should welcome the opportunity to face down a critical audience that responds with authority.

This lack of being accountable, the attitude that anything goes has made poetry the creative expression of last resort, even after mime and children's theater. There are a lot of pedestrians out there who have reasoned that if they can't sing, dance, or play the guitar, they must, by default, be poets.

Some years ago a guy I knew in Vancouver lost his job at an art gallery. Due to idleness and a lack of direction he fell in with the poetry crowd and of course started writing. His stuff was sloppy and obviously derivative but no one seemed to mind. One night sitting over a beer I cautiously asked him about his creative process. Without batting an eyelid, he told me that he typed other poets work on his computer, moved the verses around and substituted words until he had something that looked like his own. He then enthusiastically added, "This poetry thing is a blast."

I'm all for poetry being a blast but it cannot be viable unless we are discriminating and courageous enough not only to identify the charlatans but also to celebrate and give momentum to poets of real accomplishment. For too long now any criticism of Canadian literature has been seen as tantamount to treason. Peter Gzowski during his years in the Canadian cultural cockpit did a lot to ram this absurd edict down our throats. Canada is no different from any other country in the world. Most of what gets written is mediocre at best and almost all poetry is bad. Almost all! This is why true poetry deserves to shine and endure and why it needs a more discriminating audience.

So often at readings the featured reader shows up with his or her students in tow, to marvel at the pyrotechnics of the maestro. These poets are invariably dull. To be honest, I find the teaching of poetry a dubious occupation and poetry workshops are a real thorn in my side.

Poets who organize and teach poetry workshops have reduced poetry to a cottage industry. The teaching of poetry has become epidemic. The question of having the “gift” never comes up; the assumption being that poetry can be acquired like everything else. I have to say that the poets who head up these little retreats are very sensitive, preferring to lie rather than give any genuine criticism that may offend the student. You see they must keep these aspiring poets coming back, year after year, stanza after stanza, by shamelessly lending credence to the most flat literal efforts. I have yet to meet anyone who has been told the truth about their work, (good or bad) at one of these little soirées in the woods.

The blame shouldn’t go so much to the hapless souls that sign-up for these exercises but to the purveyors of snake oil that put them on. I am not suggesting that poets cannot teach one another a trick or two, but taking 10 to 15 aspirants to a nunnery in Sooke for a 3-day workshop is so sweet it could make one cry. It goes up against everything radical, wild and individual in poetry. These people would be better served and brought closer to poetry if they got drunk, got laid, or went dancing.

The teaching of poetry whether in university, college or high school is the single most damaging force to the creation and appreciation of the genre. One of the underlining advantages of studying poetry at a university or college is that if you fail to create any poetry of merit you can always fall back on teaching it. This ensures that the damage will be perpetuated onto the next generation. I think the people who elect to teach and de-mystify poetry and make it accessible should keep Mallarme’s dictum in mind. “To suggest is to create, to explain is to destroy.” This assertion is particularly important when the explanations offered are misguided and wrong. If someone wants to write they should work quietly, trust their instincts and study literature.

When student poets get up to read they almost always thank their teacher for making poetry fun. Poetry should be protected from fun. There is so much fun in the world it isn’t funny anymore. Poetry is essentially a solemn and devotional form. Funny poetry is a contradiction in terms…it’s the equivalent of kneeling in a church and saying funny prayers or chanting at a funny ritual. I am not saying that there is no room for humour in poetry but I am saying that there is very little room. We need things that are serious. What could be more pessimistic that wanting everything to be funny? Like failed musicians and actors who become children’s entertainers, I sometimes suspect that comedians that aren’t that funny decide to be poets.

Poetry and the reading of poetry should be an event of the same stature as theater or music. Sure, it is not as easy to spot talent or the lack of it as it is with acting or music so we have to be vigilant, outspoken, more courageous with our criticism and more qualified in our praise. Seeing as I began this piece with a quote from a poet, I feel it is appropriate to finish it with a riff from the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova:

Do not repeat - your soul is rich -
The thing that someone said before,
But who knows, perhaps poetry itself
Is just one marvelous quotation.

Tom Henihan was born in Limerick City, Ireland and immigrated to Canada in 1982. He has lived between southern Alberta and Vancouver Island for the past 17 years. He has read his work at many of the major venues across Canada and been a resident at the Leighton Artists studios at the Banff Centre for the arts in 1995, 1997 and 1998.

Henihan's first collection of poetry Between the Streets was published in 1992. His second book A Mortar of Seeds published by Ekstasis Editions was nominated for a Writers Guild of Alberta Award in 1998. In 2002, he published a hand-printed limited edition Almost Forgotten with Frog Hollow Press. His fourth collection A Further Exile was published in fall 2002, also with Ekstasis Editions. Subsequent to the publication of Almost Forgotten, he became poetry editor with Frog Hollow Press.






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