Word for Word: To read or not to read

Is poetry meant for the ear or the eye?

Philip Larkin on reading his poetry to audiences: ‘I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.’ Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Philip Larkin on reading his poetry to audiences: ‘I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.’ Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


‘For poetry readings, the general rule is that if the poet is outnumbered it is a success.” This remark by the poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch informed the title of the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s enthralling book of essays The Outnumbered Poet. In it O’Driscoll casts a sometimes fond, sometimes acerbic eye back at some memorable readings.

Not all poets take to the business of reading their work aloud with relish. Wallace Stevens could not imagine a more ghastly enterprise and suggested that “poets, like millionaires, should neither be seen nor heard”.

“I don’t want to go around pretending to be me,” Philip Larkin said to explain his deeply held resistance to the pursuit. Similarly, Elizabeth Bishop professed a dislike for readings, saying she’d only been to a few poetry readings she could bear. She used to sit in tears during readings by her friends Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, fearing that “they’ll do something wrong”.

At a reading in Kilkenny, Lowell recalled the best and kindest introduction he’d ever heard a poet give: “I’m going to read six poems, and it’s going to take 37 minutes.”

Kay Ryan regards the pleasure of poetry as private, and for her the right-sized room is her head, the words speaking from the page.

Yet however much the debate rages about poetry being for the ear or the eye, a glance across the festival calendar in Ireland suggests the poetry reading is in rude health. Even in our sophisticated digital world, with easy access to poets’ voices, people still throng to readings to sit in the same room, in search of an intimate and meaningful experience.

Good readings can add music and meaning to the work, and in the hands of a good reader-poet this can allow the listener to catch something of the essence of the poem.

Next month the former poet laureate of the United States Billy Collins will be artist-in-residence at Kilkenny Arts Festival. He adopts a humorous attitude to readings. “No matter what degree of pleasure you give an audience, there’s no pleasure greater than the pleasure you give them when you shut up!”

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