Today, I read an essay by David Groff on The Peril of the Poetry Reading. He tackles the issue of the value of such readings to poetry itself and raises some interesting points.
Ironically it was just last night that I explained to another poet how reading her work in print adds a dimension that hearing it read in a group setting cannot provide. As I said that, I had to think about my views on poetry readings. I am in fact a fan of readings. I have found them positive experiences both as a poet and as a consumer of poetic works. There is a very important place in the literary world for public readings. At least that is the view I have held and I am not swaying from that position.
Groff suggests that "even if a poem takes on a fresh life when it's delivered in the voice of its maker, it loses more than it gains." He quotes the poet Richard Howard from a keynote address at the 1996 PEN Literary Awards where he said, "We have failed...to make poetry known; we have merely made it public. If we are to save poetry, which means if we are to savor it, we must restore poetry to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes our authentic pleasures and identifies only our intimately valued actions." Groff adds, (Howard sees) "... a poem as an intimate act of communication and not an occasion for a group grope."
I'm not sure that I agree with Groff that it loses more than it gains, but there is a difference and I think it is valid to question if the trade off is beneficial in the end. I do like Richard Howard's view that a poem is an very intimate communication. I believe the fact that each of us bring our own life prospectives to a printed page of poetry and therein some transformation occurs. That transformation is very personal. It has the readers soul imprinted upon it. Two readers are not necessarily going to see or get the same value from the same poem.
There is the physical aspect of poetry on a page. The line breaks. The way the poem fills out the white void that is a page before the poem is created. Much of poetry, though not all is about form. And I will remind you that though literary in construction, poetry is very much about images. Expressing place. It is also in some respects a visual art. David Groff's essay has indeed called into question the loss of a poem's form when read in public. It is an undeniable fact that in some poems this is of significant value. The eyes and mind are able to do something that the ears and mind cannot replicate.
I personally enjoy hearing poets read their own work. I enjoy poets reading other people's work. But I have heard poems and later read them to find I saw them in a quite different view. I will still do public readings. I will continue to attend public readings. What this essay has caused me to consider however, is just how important it is for each of us to stress reading poems personally. David Groff considers this the "ultimate act of poetic integrity... to take the poem home."