Why do we listen to poetry? Many of us don’t, of course. Verse recitation is hardly a great spectator sport . It’s thought of by many of as a minority activity in the same category as collecting diesel electric shunter numbers or participating in kendo. That’s the Japanese art of the sword practised while wearing head to toe black robes and metal head gear, if you were wondering. Poetry, when read out loud by its author, can give us not only music and magnificence, entertainment and elevation, but new insight into what the writer actually meant. If, indeed, they did actually have some content to impart and were not simply making an artistic statement.
The form has come a long way. When I first experienced it (decades ago, back bar, Park Hotel, A G Prys Jones in an armchair delivering somnambulant verse to a prim audience already mostly asleep) poetry readings seemed to be too intellectual an activity for their own good. Organisers were chastised for letting their poets on stage wearing anything less than a suit. Poets were asked to hand out written versions of their verses in advance lest the audience lose their way. Poetry was straight and it was quiet. We went home at 9.30 full of worth.
In the twenty-first century this is no longer how things are. In reasonably quick succession I have recently experienced the whole contemporary range. First up was a reading by the backwoods open-field master of the mystic, Chris Torrance. This was delivered by a hat-wearing, seated poet to the accompaniment of techno, treated guitar music from the inimitable Chris Vine. The event was as much a poetry performance as it was a musical adventure. I then attended a more traditional poets from the floor stand-up event which included readings (i.e. with bits of paper in front of the poet), recitations (here the poet recited from memory), along with a performance from one new-tech innovator who read from text flashed to his iPhone. The entire audience appeared to be participants. I began to wonder who the readings were actually for.
At the launch for The Listening Shell, a book of poems celebrating the writing centre, Ty Newydd, there was a large crowd. The poets, and there were loads of these, everyone from Samantha Wynn Rhydderch to Tony Curtis and Nigel Jenkins to Paul Henry, appeared on stage in managed order. No one read more than a single piece. It was all over by 9.00. The audience loved it. Exposed but not drowned. Less is more.
At the Spoken Word All Stars in the Pierhead the multiracial crew had not a single scrap of paper between them. Poetry, delivered from the hip by the hip and for the hip, flowed seamlessly for ninety minutes. The audience rocked, poetry rolled. Verse out loud, it still works.