How Long Should A Poetry Reading Be?

Jake Adam York
October 7, 2011
Comments 3

I’ve been on the road this week, sharing readings with my friend Brian Barker. A duo reading means that you have to answer, several times, the same question: Who reads first? But it also means you ask another question: How long should I read?

It’s the host who’s to answer this question, and the answer, I imagine, results from a secret negotiation between the host’s interest in the poet’s work and the host’s knowledge of his or her own community, their patience or interest or business.

If this week is any indication, the general answer to the second question is 20 minutes—or no longer than 20 minutes. So, the whole reading—including the waiting-for-people-to-come-in-late time and the offerings to the gods of institution and the introductions and the actual performance—runs maybe 50 minutes.

That this is about the length of a network TV drama (usually 44 minutes of actual show, once you count out the commercials) makes me wonder if poetry readings are somehow timed by television or other popular forms. (Though a CD can hold about 80 minutes of music, most rock albums clock in at less than 50, and even NPR’s longer programs tend to be curbed by the chiming of the hour.)

For some reason, whenever I’m asked this question (as the host), I think immediately of three readings.

The first was given by Daniel Alarcon at the University of Colorado Denver, where he came at my invitation, just after Lost City Radio came out. He read a passage from the novel that had a shape like a short story, so it was discrete and seemingly complete; Alarcon had solved a problem a novelist must face all the time, how to offer something that seems whole, even though it is by nature partial. But the actual performance part couldn’t have lasted more than 25 minutes. He took another 30 minutes of questions, and dropped some serious wisdom, but I wanted more story, even though I’d read the book. I wanted to get more lost in the world of his novel. How much longer, though, could he have gone on and carried our students with him? 10 minutes? 20?

The second was a reading given by Mark Doty at UC Denver in 2002 or so. He read in that masterful pace of his, raising maybe eight or ten poems to our ears. Honestly, his sense of timing was so perfect, I completely lost track of time. When he was finished, he said Thank you, and I had to look at my watch. I thought He just got started, but he’d been reading for 45 or 50 minutes, which, I know, is about the time the performer gets tired.

The third was given by Robert Creeley at the University of Denver maybe five years ago, to a packed auditorium. I want to say that he observed that in the “old days” readings would go on for two or three hours, though he promised to read for only an hour. He read for closer to an hour and a half, which was great, though he paused for a few minutes in the middle of a long poem because he’d lost one of the pages.

The longer reading makes me think that maybe the length of a sitcom or radio program is too short sometimes, and I remember something a Shakespearean actor said once in an elocution workshop—that a play shouldn’t take more than two-and-a-half hours in performance, that maybe there is an upper limit to the attention span of an audience…

So, how long should a poetry reading be? I think it should be long enough to satisfy, long enough that you stop thinking about whether it’s enough, but so long that you wonder if it’s too much. But what is that for you?

3 thoughts on “How Long Should A Poetry Reading Be?

  1. The answer lies in the Doty example above. If the poems are fine and the reader is skilled, then 45-50 minutes will fly. If either of these elements is missing, people get antsy after 20 minutes. I hear lots of poets and am sometimes disappointed by their lack of performance skills. Not slam or other “performance poetry”but good use of voice, mic, pacing and selection. As with much of poetry life, go hear plenty and enjoy those special readings that you almost wish would never end.

  2. a friend & I recently started a reading series (Mental Marginalia) and though it’s pretty young, the folks that have come out have given us a lot of positive feedback. One of the biggest things seems to be reading length. We generally have 4 readers, keep ’em under 20 minutes and have a break in the middle.
    Both of us curators come from diy backgrounds and we’re trying to keep things fun and interesting. If people are bored, they should leave. “Keep ’em wanting more” is exactly what we go for and it works. When a reader (or a band or whatever) go even a couple minutes too long, they undo all the good work they’ve put in because they’ve just lost the audience: yawns, blank stares, shuffling feet, etc.

  3. The longest reading I ever attended was at Naropa: Trungpa, Ginsberg, Bly, Snyder. There were three moments I remember well. One was when Trungpa set something on his head that looked like a chamberpot (he seemed to be drunk). The second was when Ginsberg, maybe two-thirds of the way through “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” stopped to shout, “Can those in the back hear every word of this?” and someone shouted back, “Unfortunately, yes!” The third was when Bly attempted to recite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” over the stage-right bantering of Ginsberg and his guru. By the time poor Snyder’s turn came, the audience had started to wander out of the hall.

    I don’t know if there’s a lesson in any of this.

    The best reading I ever saw was at the Jung Institute in Denver, when Robert Bly read his own poems, spoke about fairy tales, told fairy tales, and read poems by a variety of other poets, including (finally!) “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” It lasted a good hour and a half and was followed by another 45 minutes of questions from the audience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a poet more generous with his time, or one whose energy and ideas could keep a hall full of people happily in their seats for so long.

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