I once heard Andrew Motion give a poetry reading at a day-conference for teachers, writers and writers in education. There had been workshops, talks and a Q and A with a panel of experts. The energy of the event was palpable. Phone numbers and emails had been swapped, connections made. The conference closed with a reading, the audience hushed and excited, the thoughts of the snow that had delayed our journeys to get there long banished.
Motion read with wit and gravitas. Where poems needed explicating, he gave it, unhurriedly and with economy. He was on great form. He had recently been appointed Poet Laureate. We were lucky to have him there and we knew it.
At the end of a poem somewhere near the beginning of his reading, the audience clapped. The poem in question was ‘A Glass of Wine‘, a fine and lovely lyric which perfectly matches the cry of its occasion. A pause. Then heartfelt applause. Andrew Motion glared at us. ‘I would rather you didn’t,’ he said. ‘Please can we save that for the end?’
The remainder of the reading passed without incident.
I have heard a good friend of mine, also a senior British poet, express much the same sentiment: ‘I don’t care about the noise that poems provoke. It’s silence that I’m after. I want them to shut up.’
In other art-forms, especially music, the social contract that is built up around them carries an entirely different set of expectations. The same is true for poetry slam and spoken word events. It would be unthinkable to attend one without expecting to hear noise —applause, commentary, yelps of approval— before, during and after poets’ performances.
Personally speaking I am not sure I agree with the view of my friend. I love to hear the enormous yes of applause, especially if it is a new one, one I do not read very often, or a piece I had thought was a dud. But this does not stop me listening for and learning to differentiate between the shades of silence at the end of poems. I hope I am getting better at it, but suspect it will take me forever.
Mostly I am with my brother. In the days when we used to go busking together he would quip ‘Don’t clap, throw money!’ at the end of songs our audiences had enjoyed. Poetry being what it is I have yet to see this, even on the wild nights.