Second Person | Mini Essay | Half-Laughter, by Phil Brown
“Contact with other people does not lead to art; it leads to conversation.” Robert Bly
The literary scene is increasingly becoming a MMORPG. The different meanings of the word ‘profile’ are blurring into each other and bandwidths are bursting with banter suspended as cold clusters of zeroes and ones. This is why, for all its occasional tedium and demand for us to travel to obscure, out-of-the-way little venues, the live-reading system is by far the best way of instantly engaging with the writing ‘community’.
Whilst the internet has been incredibly good at bringing together a variety of disparate specialist-interest communities, poetry included, it will never replace that feeling of sharing a glass of wine with a stranger at a book launch and discovering that you both have a W.D. Snodgrass book in your bag. Whilst a poet may be able to deliver the most assured and postured polemics imaginable in the e-world, it will never replace the feeling of hair-on-end electricity of a confidently delivered poem to a captivated audience – I am thinking specifically here of the Catalan poet, Joan Margarit who reads with such musicality that the so-called ‘language barrier’ is hurdled without hesitation.
However, whilst I can easily recall for you the thirteen times that a poet has left me awestruck and desperate to buy their oeuvre on the strength of a live reading, they are sadly not what sticks in my head when I think of the dangerous ‘poetry + microphone’ equation. To me, poetry gigs are defined by what Michael Hamburger referred to as the ‘titter of recognition’. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then go to a theatre and watch one of Shakespeare’s comedies and listen to the audience. You hear that little smug muttering sound? That’s bourgeoisie for ‘I get the joke because I’m clever’.
I’m no saint in this, we’ve all done it. As a poet, I’ve deliberately chosen to read poems that will elicit a giggle. As an audience member, I’ve grunted my smarmy appreciation for the occasional reference to a book that I like to say I’ve read. As an English teacher, I know all too well the deathly fear of a silent room – it seems counterintuitive.
This is, of course, only natural. In the same way that a horror-film or a comedy will show you footage of its audience as part of its advertising campaign, poets and their audiences are only able to gauge the reception of a piece through an established lingua franca of laughs, groans, sighs and hums.
For all my apprehensions over the actual performance-aspect of some of these events however, I’ve got to know two or three of my favourite people having met them for the first time at poetry readings; you will find these events populated by some of the most ambitious, amiable, conscientious and enthusiastic people you could ever hope to meet. With that in mind, I’m sure that the pretentious half-laughter is a small price to pay.