Tips for Reading Poetry

by Stan White

Photography by BJWOK /

The success of your reading starts at home with the choice of your poems. Some poets find this quite impossible, but do try to decide what to read before you get behind the mike. Avoid poems that your critics will argue for months over what you meant. Keep in mind that your listeners only get one go at it and they don’t have a hard copy. Lighter poetry works best. You have it made if you are a lyric poet, for poetry that has lots of rhythm and is a babble of words can be pleasantly enjoyed without your audience knowing what it means. Most audiences will give you the benefit of the doubt if it doesn’t last too long.

Find out how long you are expected to read, then divide it by three. Every minute of preparation time in your basement translates to about 20 seconds when you get behind the mike. This is hard to explain but it may because you can’t resist telling a joke every other poem, or you have difficulty separating the pages, or that microphones are designed never to stay where you put them, or any number of other things that all seem to be necessary as well as reading your poems.

If you have a choice, don’t go last (see short bio) and don’t go first. For the first five minutes the audience wants to talk amongst themselves, take off coats, drop things on the floor, and cough. If you are further down the pecking order you get a chance to see the poets who have muffed it by standing too close, or too far away, from the mike.

When it is your turn you will start by thanking the host for inviting you, then thank the owners of the venue for providing it, then thank the person who has provided the refreshments (there is usually a round of applause that goes with this) then finally you thank everybody for being there even if half of them have already left. Add to this the round of applause you get when they introduce you and the much lesser round of applause they give you when you come down from the stage and by then, after you have told them why you intend to read the poetry you are going to read, there is rarely any time to read it. But since you are doing all this for free it doesn’t really matter. Most important, it is bad form to run over your allotted time. I do hope that this short preview will ease the path for any poet who aspires to this extremely rewarding pastime.

Stan White has read poetry under a bridge sheltering out of the rain in a thunderstorm; in nursing homes frequently interrupted by Code Blue’s over the intercom; in cafeterias to a chorus of coffer makers sounding like mustard plasters being ripped off hairy chests. He has read poetry in bus shelters with objections from dogs, birds and motor bikes; in railway cafeterias with 20 minute waits between goods trains passing; in bars where the customers would have been loud even if they were sober. He has read poetry through sound systems that delivered every “P” and most every other letter as though fired through a canon. With a name beginning with “W”, he was the last poet in a five hour poetry marathon where the only audience left was the caretaker waiting to lock up. Stan has read poetry in a coach house to the perpetual and annoying iambic squeak of an air conditioner; in venues where massed Salvation Army brass bands would have wavered. Yet still he dreams of reading to nymphs in sylvan glades over the barely audible babble of brooks and to the accompaniment of Pan Pipes.

One response to “Tips for Reading Poetry

  1. Lee Anne Johnston

    Stan, your bio is priceless.
    Thanks for the pointers on reading!

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