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Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Physics of Poetry

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26 November

Well, you've heard of The Tao of Physics (or even The Tao of Pooh), so why not?

What I mean is a poetry reading, rather than reading (or writing) poetry, and looked at from the point of hearing of a member of the audience (screw the poets – for they choose to do this, and they, or their contacts (or their contacts’ contacts), then involve the listeners in being there, perhaps as witnesses, perhaps as priests, offering or withholding the sacrament).

It is both a very physical (sometimes exhausting) experience – closet close in quiet, concentrate on confessions, confused by colour, word-choice, syntax – and one that, unlike interactions that have a chemistry, is a creature of physics. Why physics, not biology?

OK, the larynx, the vocal-chords, they are necessary participants, just as are ears and auditory processing (What did he just say? Oh, he did slip in ‘fuck’ after all – have I caught what he said next?), but they are in what we call chemistry, what, when there are more people present, we like to call ‘the group dynamic[s]’.

No, this is physics, because bodies are in rotation or opposition about or on the fulcrum of the reading, and they could be as massive as planets, or as tiny as motes (probably not at the same time). Into that void, from who knows where, the reader-poet advances a proposition, a poem (or the so-called prose-poem, as if there could be a cigarette-cigar, for a cigarillo certainly isn’t it), which might be met by a laugh or two, shocked inhalations or a snort, but largely by silence.

Is it even over? Is usually not registering, even by the crude measure of applause, a proper response until what follows I’ll finish with this one is clearly finished just borne out of fear of jumping in too soon? Or is there some more delicate formality in play, some respectful reverence into which sounds other than those that escape us despite ourselves (no, I didn’t mean those) are not meant to intrude?

Perhaps, with some reader-poets, each poem is a letter, spelling – or threatening to spell – the name of God, but one succeeds another, and some of them almost seem to found their sense of success (and succession) on how much distortion and noise they have added.

I do not believe that it can always have been like this with public performances, but I must research it to see if I can find how, for example, a reading of his works by Robert Browning or, better still, Lord Byron was received. (At the opposite extreme is the recital where, despite a clear indication that songs accompanied by piano are to be treated as a group, those present insist on clapping after every one, utterly with the potential to put off the soprano or counter-tenor for (or by) whom a sequence of three or four songs had been conceived as part of the whole.)

And, if I had ten or a dozen poems that might even be worth being heard, I’d allow those present to see the text of what they were hearing (or not, if they preferred the mental crossword-puzzle of fathoming form and content from sound), and I’d memorize those poems (so never do it, as my memory doesn’t favour input in a prescribed form), and I’d learn to look around at those around me, to engage them and engage with them.

I know that I should, because a guy called Mark Waldron did it the other night. Moreover, he didn’t use language to show off his knowledge (or what passes for it), he didn’t just entertain with his rich conceits, and he recited in such a way that I was quite clear of his literal meaning, without abnormal accentuation or the obscurity of the prized referent that has to be explained first.

Poor man’s contumely? There’s always that danger, but I hope the recognition that there is more of stand-up in reading poetry than is given credit for – the comedian needs to know whether the audience is being reached (imagine the straitjacket of no spontaneous applause during a set), and the audience needs to feel that the comedian is reaching out to them with his or her words, not just delivering a joke or story with flatness and expecting their approval as if his or her due.


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