Death to the oral tradition

March 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

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Philip Larkin on the problems with poetry readings (from the Paris Review Interviews Vol. 2):

“Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much- the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing there and their and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience… I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the score that doesn’t come to life until it is performed. It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should hear it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course, this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.”

Whilst there are glorious exceptions to this, I am generally in agreement. The same is broadly true of prose readings, which I continue to do, but am almost always dissatisfied with. I don’t think I read badly, and maybe some people enjoy it, but the plain fact is that I don’t write stories for them to be listened to. I write them to be read. I don’t want my work to be judged on the strength of my performance. The test is whether it stands up on the page.

Stand by for more reactionary announcements.

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