Sunday, September 15, 2013

Boring Readings are Not Always Bad

A recent photo of me at a poetry reading got me thinking.

Many poets have told me privately that sitting through poetry readings can be tough. Dull. Boring. Inane.

I would say the same thing, but even a tedious reading experience, like the walk through a non-descript part of town, can be good for the soul.

The fact is that I was not sleeping during the reading pictured above. It was mostly a terrific reading, and I was actually concentrating--or, on occasion, during lesser moments, trying to concentrate--on what the readers were saying and how they were saying it. I was submitting to other people's thoughts in a way that, at least when they aren't shuffling papers or checking their text messages and email, audience members do at poetry readings.

How rare that is: total submission to the workings of someone else's mind, in a public setting, for an extended period of time. Contemplation in company. The suppression of one's own desire to express anything other than approval or indifference.

Boredom at readings happens for different reasons. Sometimes the poetry being performed is boring, dull, inane. More often, however, it gives us something valuable to consider, Marianne Moore's "place for the genuine," even when the poetry is crude or unsophisticated. When the former is true, boredom can move poets and others rapidly to introspection, the opposite of public participation; or it can lead poet/audience members to reflect on what to avoid in their own poetry. When the latter is true, we can drift into contemplation, and find it difficult to stay with the next poem or next poet simply because we are preoccupied. This is an eternal conflict for many people, especially for writers: how to appreciate a revelation and still remain in the moment, remain outwardly focused.

Of course, poets may be bored by readings simply because they have had to leave the orbits of their egos. They could hardly, after all, be poets without egos. At readings they are forced to listen closely to people they have not necessarily chosen to hear, particularly if the event in question includes an open mic. Listening closely, or at least trying to, is an exercise in humility, which tempers ego and leads to greater compassion.

So are we necessarily complaining about poetry readings or about certain poets when we say were bored by particular readings? Maybe. Or maybe we're just complaining about having to do our work. 

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