The Bad Poetry Reading

David Kirby Click to read more...

dkirbyDavid Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant and has appeared in Best American Poetry four times. Known for his wit and Whitmanesque energy, Kirby is a music aficionado, poetry critic and popular culture encyclopedia. His books include The Ha-Ha (LSU, 2003), The Temple Gate Called Beautiful (Alice James, 2008) and Talking about Movies with Jesus (LSU, 2011).  The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his new book is Get Up, Please (LSU, 2016).

It’s not your fault that you didn’t like it. It’s the poems’ fault. 
And the poet’s. The poems were bad, and he shouldn’t 
	have read them. Here’s why: every time you give a talk 
		or teach a class or play a guitar in public or stage a play, 
there are always going to be several different kinds of people

	in your audience, and if it’s a poetry reading, there will be 
young people who have never heard poetry read aloud 
	and are there only because their teacher has made attendance 
		a course requirement, which makes this your 
chance to pull them like fish out of the gray lake they’ve been 

	swimming in and release them into a sunlit sea. There’ll be 
people who’ve been to hundreds of readings, their eyes in
	a fine frenzy rolling from stage to audience, audience 
		to stage, but also someone who may hear poetry for 
the last time tonight, an older person or a young fit one who 

	is about to have an aneurysm explode like a bomb in her brain
or,  most likely of all, someone much like you or me driving home 
	when the reading’s over and coming to a two-way stop, 
		only the other driver doesn’t. Or there’s someone who’s 
troubled, who feels as though life isn’t worth living, a man 

	whose woman has left him or a woman whose child has died: 
it seemed okay when it was born, and then it died, and its mother 
	joined the countless women to whom the same thing
		has happened, who knew what had happened yet
couldn’t keep from telling themselves that it hadn’t, 

	the way Mary Shelley did when she gave birth to a baby girl, 
and after the child dies, Mary writes in her journal, "Dream 
	that my little baby came to life again—that it had only 
		been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived."
Say there’s a woman in your audience tonight who

	has had that same experience. Are you going to read her
a poem about a shadow that chases another shadow
	through an interior monologue, though no one knows
		whether the second shadow is the same as the first 
or another shadow altogether, and it all takes place 

	under ice? No, you’re not, no more than you’d read a poem 
that says man that is born of woman is of few days,
	that there’s no such thing as death, that the babies are 
		all in heaven, that their mommies will see them again 
some day. Instead, you’re going to read something that is, 

	I don’t know, earthy, almost primitive, a poem 
that comforts precisely because it’s not trying to, one that focuses on
	the moment yet glances at everything that surrounds it, 
		perhaps a funny poem with a dark heart or a sad one that 
provokes belly-shaking laughter or a poem that tells a wonderful story 

	even though it contains chewy little nuggets that are indifferent, 
even hostile to story. You’re going to write an elemental poem, 
	one that has three dimensions: you can try for more, 
		as some people do, but you’ll probably end up with none. 
And after you’ve written that poem, you’re going to try it 

	out on somebody, and they’re going to like it, because 
you have written the poem that has the power to comfort 
	that grieving mother, console the lonely, give the hopeless
		hope. And you can read that poem tonight. Or you can 
read a bad poem, or more than one. What will you do?
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Discussion

4 Responses to The Bad Poetry Reading

  1. M. Latella says:

    This poem was entertaining from start to finish. I think what I enjoy most is the honest tone that is woven throughout the entire piece. Every writer has had that experience of feeling like the piece they’ve chosen to share at a public reading is “bad;” you get up to the podium, and there’s no turning back. No matter how “bad” you think your poem or short story is, you’ve committed yourself to reading it. I think Mr. Kirby has done a great job of capturing these feelings of self doubt by putting a humorous spin on this nerve-wracking experience. In the end, he explains that a poetry reading has the power to inspire audience members and to pull people out of a dark place, which is motivation enough for writers everywhere to stand up and read their “bad” poems. Even if you think it’s bad, someone out there will think otherwise. And your words may just save that person’s life.

  2. Ann says:

    Wow, yes, thank you.

  3. Tom Todaro says:

    There’s a whole boat of poems in here, David.

  4. Ricks Carson says:

    The binary good-bad is fine; either kind might make at least one reader vibrate. It’s the mediocre poems that are bad for everyone: all they do is tell listeners their own life back to them in words that wouldn’t excite a child.

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