Giving Poets a Bad Name

by Matthew Koslowski on April 30, 2010
in Anecdotes, Essays

We sat in the small square of chairs set before a microphone and two tables, one with two books on little stands and the other piled with books. Three women walked from the escalator over to the table and one of them, our poet, sat down at the table between the two books.

The time was not yet 3:30pm, the appointed time.

I chatted with my girlfriend. She asked me what I knew of Louise Glück’s work. I admitted I knew little besides her The First Four Books of Poems, which sat on my lap waiting to be signed.

I had bought the book largely for the silver sticker that read, “U.S. Poet Laureate.” While I lived in Chicago, I wanted to get acquainted with contemporary English-language poetry and would regularly peruse the book shelves there. When I saw that sticker, I figured there were worse poets with whom to get acquainted. A few times I thumbed through her work but it did not much resonate with me.

“What will you be reading today?” a member of the small audience asked.

Louise looked startled. “Reading? Why did you think this was a reading? I am not reading today. If you’ve got a questions, I’d be happy to have a conversation with you all. And, of course, I’ll sign.”

On the little table, just beside her with her books, a sign said, “Reading & Signing.” There was a collective sigh of disappointment.

She looked at our blank faces. “Please understand, that I hate to read my work. I think the performance cheapens my poetry. My poems, when spoken, get transformed into a linear progression of words that only happens once. I apologize if there was a misunderstanding, but I clearly told Barnes&Noble that this was to be a signing event.”

When Homer, and the singing minstrels who sang his epics, gave voice to his poetry, did that cheapen the work? When Shakespeare’s actors gave voice to the grand poetry in his plays, did that cheapen the work? I thought these questions but did not dare give them voice.

She added, “I only read if my publisher demands it. Or if there is a huge financial incentive.”

No, Ms. Glück. It is not the performance of your work that cheapens it: it is your attitude.


4 Responses to “Giving Poets a Bad Name”
  1. Todd says:

    Wow what an odd thing to say. I thought poetry was primarily to be spoken and heard, and only secondarily to be read silently.

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    Todd, I agree with you, as does Natalie Merchant. She was afraid of poetry on the page for a long time. When she started to read it aloud for her daughter, to approach it with her daughter, she found a whole world open up to her. She had thought that she had to be serious to approach poetry. The realization that she did not lead her on a five year journey that culminated in Leave Your Sleep, her musical interpretation of about two dozen poems for children.

  2. Kate B. says:

    What an snobbish, inexcusable attitude. I’ve worked at Barnes & Noble and Barnes & Noble College Booksellers for 5 years now; all the authors whose book readings and signings I’ve been involved with (including Billy Collins, the poet laureate who preceded Ms. Glück) have been extremely gracious, both to the audience and to the staff in charge of the appearance.

    Ms. Glück seemed more than happy to entertain her audience at Colgate University, just last month:

    It’s easier to justify being rude to people at a Barnes & Noble — it’s a chain bookstore, after all, and nobody there really \matters\ in the way that the academics and serious students do. Sorry, Ms. Glück, but the folks who come out to your appearances at bookstores probably care a lot more about you (or literature, at least) than all those jocks at ______ University who are only at your reading because their freshman year English teacher made them go.

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    Well, Kate, I wonder what caused her to read at Colgate. Was it her a demand from her publisher? Or was it a huge financial incentive?