Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Awkwardness of Poetry Readings

Poetry readings are generally solemn, mirthless affairs. Kind of like church. You go out of a sense of obligation, or habit, or because of your own fervency. The poet takes the pulpit and to hushed nods and amens delivers the short, plosive sermons. Before leaving, everyone stops by to say what a fine thing it was.

Don't get me wrong -- I love hearing poets read their work. It's just that the events themselves can become somewhat stifling. That's partly why the reading by Dean Young and Tony Hoagland last night was such a pleasure. Characteristically irreverent, they disrupted the poetry reading paradigm. The crowd, which packed the Chicago Public Library's Pritzker auditorium, had all the hallmarks of poetry readers (blocky eyewear, abundant wool, etc.) and responded eagerly to Young's dry, wary humor ("The longer a poetry reading goes on--mine in particular--it becomes an increasingly awkward social situation") and Hoagland's riffs. I don't think I've ever heard poems inspire so much laughter.

At the same time, the tragedy in these two poets' work inevitably seeps out, which is why they transcend mere comedy. More than anything else, both are driven by the sheer absurdity of human experience. As Dean Young put it, they derive from the ridiculousness of "sitting in a hospital room with your dying aunt, while next door there's a TV on with a laugh track.... Reality moves very quickly between the devastating and the debacle."

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