Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Readings

Since there's been all this talk about poetry readings on the blogosphere lately (or at least in the derelict corner of it that I haunt), I figured I'd weigh in on the subject with my two cents, if only because it's Sunday and it's too cold outside to go out (yes, Percy, if Winter comes, Spring can be very, very far behind).

As I see it, readings as they've evolved today, generally have two distinct parts. The reading itself, and the Q&A that follows. Let's start with the Q&A. In my (admittedly limited) experience, Q&As following readings are generally snooze-fests, with questions ranging from the trivial to the inane. And I think there are good reasons for that. Nice as it would be to believe in some Athenian ideal of spontaneous public conversations giving rise to blinding insights, this is extremely unlikely to actually happen. Meaningful discussion requires a level of honesty, that the norms of politeness attendant upon a public conversation make difficult; respect for the opinions of others, which is hard to muster in a room full of unscreened strangers; shared assumptions, understanding and language, that a group of people randomly gathered are unlikely to have; a clarity of agenda that these meetings almost never have; and a quantity of time and patience that is incompatible with the format of a 15-20 minute Q&A. It's hardly surprising then, that most public Q&A's end up being exchanges of trivial platitudes. It's the same reason why having an intelligent debate on the Internet is nearly impossible.

Could moderators or discussants help raise the level of conversation? Perhaps. But aside from the practical difficulty of finding intelligent discussants, there are at least four problems with the discussant model. First, it's not clear what exactly the discussant's role is. If the discussant is expected to ask questions that are of interest to the listening audience, then a good discussant will, logically, ask more or less the same inane questions that the audience would have asked itself. After all, that's what the people really want to hear. Even if the discussant were capable of initiating a genuinely meaningful dialog with the poet, in doing so he or she risks alienating the audience, who may neither understand nor care for what is being discussed. Second, is the exchange between the poet and the discussant / moderator a conversation or an interview? If the former, then we need to ensure that the discussant is someone capable of contributing to that conversation, which suggests that he or she should be part of the reading as well; if the latter, then what, exactly, is the poet supposed to be getting out of this? Third, in either case, why is this exchange taking place at the end of the reading in front of an audience. Why not do it either in private, where both people could talk more freely, or record the conversation and broadcast it either through print or other media?

Finally, why do we believe that a verbal conversation is the best way to engage with a poet anyway? Poets aren't stand-up comics or politicians. Providing coherent, even glib answers at the drop of a hat is hardly their strong suit. If anything, what we value about a poet is often his or her ability to take an idea or an image and after long hours of contemplation, find the exactly right way to put in words. To then turn around and expect the same person to fluently respond to questions on the fly, and to judge him or her on his or her ability to do this seems irrational, if not outright cruel.

All of this suggests that Q&As as they are currently run are largely a waste of everyone's time, and makes the case for either scrapping them entirely, or, at the very least, making them an optional extra - much like discussions with the cast and crew are at film screenings or dance performances. It also suggest revisiting the format of the Q&A, perhaps switching it to a discussion or panel between multiple poets reading at the same time, though even that (and even assuming the best case) will not fix all the problems listed above.

So much for Q&A. Let's consider the reading itself next. And in doing that, let's start by accepting that as a medium of delivery the spoken word has several disadvantages over its written counterpart. First, reading a poem means that all spatial arrangement of words on the page is necessarily lost (unless the poet uses Power Point - which I've never seen or heard of a poet doing), and such arrangements (and the caesura that attend them) are an integral part of the poet's craft. Second, poetry, with its compactness, is an art of hidden meanings, of verbal and mental booby traps. There may be people who can follow a poem in a straight line from start to finish, but when I read a poem I usually end up going back and forth over the text, ferreting about among the words to catch the scent of the meaning, and that's hard (or at least harder) to do when you're hearing the poem read aloud [1]. Hearing a poem read aloud, then, may cause us to miss out on its subtler aspects.

Finally, there's the problem of interpretation. Great poems work by leaving themselves open to various readings, multiple interpretations. Hearing the poem read aloud, especially if the one reading it is the poet, can end up imposing one official interpretation over all the others. It's not unlike the feeling you get when you watch the movie version of a book you love - how either the disconnect between the images on the screen and the images in your head is so severe that you cannot take the film seriously, or you accept the onscreen depiction and are then never able to think of the characters and images in the book in any other way.

Overall then, the spoken word as a medium for poetry has several disadvantages, and all of the above is assuming at least a base level of competence in the reader. Add the possibility that the person reciting the poem may actually damage or obscure its meaning and flow and the downside is even greater.

There are, however, compensations. A truly good reading can bring a poem alive; can enrich our understanding of it, enhance our experience. What this requires, however, is something more than a vanilla reading. It requires, in the truest sense of the term, a performance. And that in turn requires both talent and preparation on the part of the one performing. The problem, of course, is that many (if not most) poets neither have the requisite talent nor are willing to put in the effort of preparation.

And why should they? If the poet's primary role is to write poems, then this requires neither a talent for public performance (reading and writing are inherently private acts - it's what draws many of us to them) nor a desire to take on the onerous distraction of prepping for such performances. This is not to suggest, of course, that poets should go unprepared for readings, or that they should not do readings at all. It is to suggest that if we start to think of reading poetry as a specialized performance, independent of the main business of writing poetry, rather than as a natural and normatively necessary extension of the fact of being 'a poet', then those poets who also happen to have the talent or desire to be performers can put in the time and effort to put together readings, while others (I suspect, but cannot prove, the majority) who have no such talent or ambition can not bother with readings all together [2].

Switching to a view of readings as performances in themselves has two further implications. First, it would mean that we could hold poetry readings to a higher standard - essentially the same standard that we hold other forms of performing art to - and this would mean that we're more likely to get exciting, adventurous readings rather than the familiar spectacle of a poet droning on from behind a lectern. And this in turn may actually increase attendance at readings; I know I'd be more willing to attend readings (which I currently tend to avoid) if I thought that poet's decision to do a reading was the signal of a deliberate and considered choice, rather than just a knee-jerk reaction to something he or she was expected to do. And greater attendance in turn would motivate those looking to perform poetry readings, thus setting up a virtuous cycle, from which everyone - audiences, poets who want to perform their work, poets who don't want to perform their work (or suck at it, and are introspective enough to know this) - would benefit.

Separating the writing of poetry from its performance also brings us to the question: why do poets read their own work? Playwrights almost never act in their plays (at least not outside of high school dram socs), scriptwriters rarely appear in their movies, composers may occasionally conduct or play the piano in their pieces, but I've never heard of a composer singing his or her own arias, and certainly there's no expectation that the composer will be the exclusive or primary performer of his or her work. Why do we insist that poets, arguably the least capable of all artists at performing in public, retain their amateur status and read their own poems? If we want to hear poetry read aloud, why not subscribe to division of labor and get professional actors / performers to do the reading? The petty vanity of poets aside [3], it's hard to see how handing poetry readings over to the professionals could do anything but improve the experience for all concerned.

Finally, once you get rid of the Q&A, and focus on the performance aspect of the reading, you're left with the question of why, in the Internet age, we persist with brick and mortar readings. There is, after all, no dearth of sites that host readings of poems, both by poets themselves and by other performers, and posting a reading on the Web means the poem is likely to reach a wider audience, and that audiences are likely to get more reliable quality. What, then, makes attending a reading a superior experience to listening to poems read on the web, and reading the text itself on the page or screen? We go to live music events because the concert experience is far more exhilarating than listening to the song or piece at home. We go to movies because staring up at the big screen has an effect that no TV or monitor can duplicate. What is it about the average reading that is so much more thrilling than hearing the poem read online? And, more to the point, if we want poetry readings to continue, what can we deliver in a physical reading that we can't over the Internet?


[1] It's interesting that readings of ghazals / other poems in Urdu (or at least depictions of them in the media - I've never actually attended one) usually involve repeating each line several times, just so the audience can fully take in its meaning

[2] The other argument that's made for readings that it helps poets reach out to an audience. I'm skeptical about this, if only because I don't know who these people are who won't read poems in books / journals, but will show up at a poetry reading of someone they wouldn't otherwise read, or why, as a poet, I would take them seriously. In any case, the idea that readings are a way for people to discover new poets and for new poets to be discovered, only makes the point about public performance not being the poet's primary expertise more salient. We need to resist the celebriti-zation of poetry - a world where the first screen by which a poet is judged is how well he or she performs in public is a world where poetry is considerably diminished.

[3] Personally, I think a lot of this reading mania is driven by the fact that there are more people out there who care about being poets than about writing poetry, which makes readings the perfect format. But that's just my (probably biased) opinion.

That clapping sound

Did you hear about the guy who asked for his new girlfriend's hand?

He figured he'd been left so often, he'd earned the right.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Because you knew Death could be
both innocent and sly,

as clever as a child,
as private, as self-aware.

You were the one who noticed
how grown-ups passed her by

the one who knelt down to say
“Don’t cry!”

then realized
you were the one crying.

Because you understood the special bond
between children and madmen –

how they both look at the world
from very far away –

and knew that for all her talk
she was only pretending,

trying to be brave,

you gave her your hand to take,
went with her,

both of you helpless,
both keeping the other safe.

A Field of Eternal Rye

"Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody."

- J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye


Update: Via the Book Bench, twelve Salinger stories in the New Yorker.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

(for BM)

I am sad because
the cherry tree has blossomed
one more year is gone.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Loneliness like oxygen

Love suffocated him. Now he breathes loneliness like oxygen, his heart burning proud.

its tempting emptiness

"Very soon a number of unconsolable oils found themselves being shipped back to Moscow, while another batch moped in rented flats before trouping up to the attic or creeping down to the marketstall."
"He lodged for another happy year in that cosy house and died of a stroke in a lift after a business dinner. Going up, one would like to surmise."
"I taught thought to mimick an imperial neurotransmitter an awsome messenger carrying my order of self destruction to my own brain. Suicide made a pleasure."
"the cemetery of the assymetrical heart"
"The minor poetry of mystical myths"

- Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun)

Ah, Nabokov.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


After a point I think we both knew I was only pretending to pretend. Trying to make it easy on you, so you wouldn't have to deal with the fact that I believed in something that could never come true. So you wouldn't have to trot out the usual reasons, the old arguments I knew so well I could have recited them in my sleep, knew them the way one knows a line of poetry or a speech from a play, one rehearsed so often it no longer means what it was meant to say. So we could spend all day laughing at my foolishness, my silly play-acting, and I could go home and drink myself to sleep every night, secure in the knowledge that I could tell you anything, anything at all. But the truth.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


The indulgence of old photo albums. Each page separated from the next by a sheet of translucent paper, so as to spare the photographs the indignity of rubbing against each other, so as to give each trapped face its privacy.

There are days when I wish my memories were so distinguished, so well-preserved. So I could tell the difference between impression and image, dream and ghost.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

They asked me how I knew

[In Memoriam Eric Rohmer]

The quest for love,
like the quest for truth,

is a moral quest. Meaning
it is confused, and arbitrary, and never

complete. This is not to say
that love is truth. Only

that both are circumstantial,
that both demand

a certainty that neither
can attain.

A true love is a love
too good to be true.

So say that love is not true,
is never true, is always make-believe.

In the making of that belief lies
the essential wager,

the theorem of a possibility:
we tell ourselves we are in love

and it is the telling
that makes it a lie.

The quest for a beloved truth, then,
for the perfect


Sunday, January 10, 2010


Work has gone a little crazy this fortnight, so blogging will be slow. In the meantime, though, you can read the new issue of Pratilipi, which features, among other things, a delightful set of pieces by the inimitable Manto, and a surprisingly competent story by one Shrimoyee Ghosh.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Bitter grapes of Roth

Reading Katie Roiphe's flimsy, rambling and generally pointless essay about Male Novelists [1] then and now in the New York Times Book Review, my first thought was that Ms. Roiphe pretty much answers the question she's set out to explore in the first paragraph. Why do New Male Novelists not write like Old Male Novelists? Because that's the way Old Male Novelists write - why would you want to repeat what's already been done?

But that isn't the point of this post. The point of this post is to take issue with what I see as Ms. Roiphe's misrepresentation of David Foster Wallace (henceforth DFW)'s take on the Great Male Novelists. In her piece, Ms. Roiphe has DFW quoting a friend describing Updike as "just a penis with a thesaurus" [2] and going on (in what Ms. Roiphe describes as a vitriolic review) to dismiss the anguish of one of Updike's protagonists, saying "I'm not especially offended by this attitude, I mostly just don't get it."

The essay in question, is called 'Certainly the end of something or the other' and can be found in DFW's Consider the Lobster (a version of it that appeared in the New York observer can be found here, and is well worth the read[3]). Several points about this essay, and the way Ms. Roiphe twists it to serve her own ends, are worth noting.

First, the "penis with a thesaurus" crack is quoted by DFW as an instance of the kind of irrational dislike some people have for Updike, a dislike that DFW feels is undeserved. In the essay, DFW describes himself as a fan of Updike, and praises some of his early novels as being "all great books, maybe classics". And even as DFW criticizes Updike's latest novel, he goes to great lengths to highlight what he considers to be its redeeming features. Hardly what you would expect from a 'vitriolic' reviewer.

Second, it's instructive to read the sentence that follows the line about not getting the protagonist's attitude that Ms. Roiphe quotes. DFW writes: "Rampant or flaccid, Ben Turnbull's unhappiness is obvious right from the novel's first page." DFW doesn't get Turnbull's attitude not because (as Ms. Roiphe, with her cherry-picked quote would have you believe) the idea of sexual emasculation as existential crisis is unintelligible to him, but because it's clear that Turnbull's crisis precedes and is independent of his loss of virility.

What's noteworthy about the DFW essay, moreover, is how much clearer an explanation of the movement away from the Great Male Narcissists DFW offers. He writes:

"There are, of course, some obvious explanations for
part of this dislike -- jealousy, iconoclasm, P.C. backlash, and the fact
that many of our parents revere Mr. Updike and it's easy to revile what
your parents revere. But I think the major reason so many of my
generation dislike Mr. Updike and the other G.M.N.'s has to do with
these writers' radical self-absorption, and with their uncritical
celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their

and again,

"But the young educated adults of the 90s -- who were, of course, the children of the
same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so
beautifully -- got to watch all this brave new individualism and
self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and
anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation. Today's sub-40s have
different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a
peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once
having loved something more than yourself."

There, in two short paragraphs, is a more concise and, to my mind, more plausible explanation for the repudiation of the old ways than anything Ms. Roiphe manages to come up with in four long pages of text.

One final point: about Narcissism. DFW's critique of the GMNs is three-fold: that their characters are inherently narcissistic, that they are closely modeled on the author, and that the writers themselves seem to celebrate this narcissism. The first two, it seems to me, are hard to argue with; it would be a brave champion of Roth or Updike indeed who would argue that their characters are not self-absorbed. Certainly Ms. Roiphe presents no evidence to counter this claim.

DFW's third assertion is shakier - possibly true of Mailer and to a lesser extent of Updike, but not so much of Roth (and certainly not of Bellow). Portnoy, Zuckerman, Sabbath - these are immortal narcissists, but I would argue that Roth is keenly and critically aware of their narcissism and of the potential for caricature inherent therein. It is hard to read Portnoy's Complaint as an "uncritical celebration" of its protagonist's self-absorption.

It is unclear to me whether DFW really meant to lump Roth in with the other GMNs (the essay is, after all, a review of one specific Updike novel) and whether he did not, perhaps, get a little carried away. But even if you take his assertion at face value, and even if you grant that the assertion that the GMNs are uncritical of their character's self-absorption is contentious, it is worth noting that Ms. Roiphe's critique of contemporary male novelists as also being narcissistic really doesn't follow. DFW's criticism of the Updike & Co. is that their characters are narcissistic and closely modeled on the authors themselves, and that the authors seem to see this narcissism as a positive quality. Even if you disagree with that last claim, and even if we grant that the characters in novels by younger male writers are narcissistic in their own way, it is hard to argue that the younger writers are creating characters who are reflections of themselves (unless Ms. Roiphe is seriously suggesting that young male writers today are either lousy, nervous lovers or children / virgins), and harder to argue that these young writers see self-absorption as praiseworthy.

I have no real argument with Ms. Roiphe's piece per se. I think it's uninteresting and ends up severely caricaturing contemporary male novelists in order to defend the old guard that Ms. Roiphe clearly values, and while I tend to agree that there is something to be said for the older writers, I don't see why it's necessary to take cheap shots at the younger ones to do so. Mostly, though, I just don't like the way she represents DFW's views, setting them up as a convenient strawman.

[1] A group that is not, and, I would argue, has never been, as homogeneous as Ms. Roiphe would have us believe. Four writers (with Bellow's inclusion being questionable) is hardly the sum of Great Male Novelists.

[2] A quote which, you have to admit, is pretty funny.

[3] If it isn't already obvious from all these footnotes, I'm very fond of DFW.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Perfect Stranger

It is too early for conclusions.

I saw you in the park yesterday. Or someone who looked just like you, which is to say, like someone I didn't recognize. Your unawareness of me seemed a kind of meditation. It made me feel more opaque.

I'm explaining this badly, I know. It's just that there are times when I feel myself slipping away, and others when I float, oarless, on transparent water, barely disturbing my own thoughts. It gets hard to distinguish sanity from light. And then yesterday, watching you read on the bench, it occurred to me that I could root myself here, above this spreading shadow, scribbling leaves of crisp phrases in a diary of high summer, throwaway pages, their anguish imaginary and weightless as the blue of the sky.

I would say you made this possible but you are the opposite of possibility, like the resumption of weight at the bottom of a fall. In a city of eight million you are the only one beyond coincidence, the only one who understands, or knows instinctively, that isolation, like any dance between two people, has its rules. To call you a stranger would be an imposition. To thank you an ingratitude. Yet I return every day to the same spot, certain you won't be there, and the knowledge anchors me.

It is too late for conclusions. All the questions we could ask have already been betrayed.


It was a question of honor. She had betrayed him, had let other people find out. It had to be done.

Afterwards, he carried her broken body back home, laid it out on the table, tried to match a stone to every wound.