Do Clap and Please Buy Books (if you want to)

Recently Anthony Wilson blogged about a poetry reading where the poet told the audience to hold their applause until the end of the reading rather than applauding after a poem and a comment by another poet to the effect that he preferred silence after a poem. The blog happened to coincide with a note in a poetry collection I received for review, “Immediate responses to the text should take precedence and over-analysis set aside.” The note was published inside the collection and wasn’t intended for reviewers but for readers.

Any performer, whether that performance is a reading on stage or sealed in a book and sent out to readers and reviewers, thrives on response. Silence is a response. It can vary from the stunned silence of “that was awesome” to a fidgeted silence of “that was embarrassing to listen to.” Silence has as many shades of interpretation as applause – is that the rapid, enthusiastic applause of an appreciative audience or the slow hand clap of disapproval?

But is it right for a performer to tell an audience how to respond?

There is an etiquette at poetry readings that applause is reserved for the end of a reading. A half-hour reading might include 20 poems and, if the audience applaud after every poem, it creates a dilemma for the poet: do they continue reading all the poems they planned to read and over-run, or should they cut poems and end on time? If a poet allows for applause and there is none, do they wrap the set up early or start reading poems they hadn’t rehearsed? A story or a song is designed to create an immediate response. A poem, however, takes time to absorb so an audience’s reaction isn’t always immediate.

However, poetry does have small audiences and discouraging audiences by giving them the message that there’s an appropriate way to respond, I think is counter-productive. It could deter people from returning to poetry readings.

It also suggests arrogance on the part of the poet, an “I am going to read my poem and I want you to respond in a certain way, even if you don’t want to respond in a certain way.” A poet who is annoyed by applause is a perhaps a poet who does not want an audience. Would these poets say, “don’t bother buying my books?”

The desire to dictate response, suggests a lack of confidence, a hint that the poet isn’t yet ready to let the poem move from a private to a public sphere. That written note suggested the poet didn’t think the poems would stand up to analysis and wanted readers to stick with their immediate reactions, even if the readers wanted to return to the text and explore the reasons for their immediate reaction.

Personally, I could not tell an audience how to respond. I like responses and I don’t care whether they are expressed through applause or silence. I do not think it’s right for the performer to tell the audience how to react.

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