Don’t clap

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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.

16 comments

  1. Naomi Jaffa

    I remember Billy Collins requesting audiences to save any applause until the end – ‘because the poems get insecure when they hear you liking some more than others’. Which I always thought was a most elegantly witty way of dealing with sporadic smatterings of clapping in between each poem…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cathy Bryant

    Do those who say, “Don’t clap” also say, “Don’t buy my books”? I’m annoyed by those who don’t accept that poetry, if shared at all, flows both ways and that responses are permitted. My favourite performance sound is that moment of electric silence before a storm of applause – the one that comes on the occasional night, the best of nights. The two go together.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      I love that electric moment of silence before applause as well. I think that is my favourite. I think. A bit like Wallace Stevens not being sure which sound he prefers, the blackbird singing, or the silence just after. As ever with thanks
      Anthony

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  3. Meg Cox

    A very useful blog (and comments) thank you. I’m afraid I am pleased at my own readings when people laugh, so when there is silence (and most open mics don’t encourage between poem applause because of time) it makes me nervous. I must learn to listen to the silence. Thank you, Meg

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  4. Rob Lock

    Maybe it would help if readers who prefer applause to be saved till the end were to say so at the outset – then you get a comfortable silence rather than the one that asks ‘Should we be clapping or not?’. It depends partly on the context of the reading too, as you say. I was invited to read between jazz sets once and suggested that any pleasing phrase might warrant a brief ripple of applause. It didn’t happen though – not even when I pointed to the text (held in left hand) with forefinger of right hand, thumb proudly erect. But then again it was during my unpleasing phrase phase.

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    • Lesley Scott Reid

      Thank you for this Anthony – it reminds me of a puzzlement I have at some readings – why do poets not have encores?
      Naomi – I am smiling and enjoying your story.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      I love the ‘unpleasing phrase phase’! I will have to steal that I think.
      Good tip re announcing what you prefer at the start. Though it rather presumes applause will be forthcoming…
      Could be tricky.
      As ever with best wishes
      Anthony

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  5. Tricia

    We all thrive on response, or many of us do, do we all? And I love the idea of silence as a response in itself, with different shades. But poetry in my view is different from other performance arts. As you so rightly say, Anthony, dance, performance poetry and music are there to elicit immediate response. Poetry is there to make the reader/listener go within. Sometimes it takes a while to emerge again. I would say that if I were a poet I would prefer to get letters than applause…but if people did applaud I wouldn’t mind that either!

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you so much for commenting.
      It is funny how an audience can let you know what they think without making a sound.
      It reminds me of what Joe Strummer used to say about learning more in a 20 minute gig than in a whole week of rehearsals in his garage.
      This is why we need to put ourselves out there, I think. We learn nothing without becoming vulnerable.
      As ever with thanks
      Anthony

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  6. Viv

    I remember the rare occasions when I have read some of my poetry. I used to occasionally go to a poetry reading thing in a wine bar in Loughborough. I am adept at hearing the shades of silence, from the “oh shit, that’s terrible, please God he never asks us what we think!” to the “stunned into silence by the words” type of silence, in the pause between the words fading and the hesitancy of applause.
    I might be conning myself but I only seem to have heard the second sort. The last time I entered a competition with any sort of innocence about how it works was for the Ottakar’s poetry competition, which was judged by Mr Motion himself. I was placed in the regional finals, but they wouldn’t tell you where, so you had to just turn up and find out. I came second, and was asked to read. The silence after I finished was filled with that “Wow!” moment and people said afterwards they wondered why it hadn’t won. The expectation was that the 1st placed poem would blow them away; the silence after that was very much a “WTF?” sort of silence, followed by a bit of a mutter, followed by polite applause. I never entered anything much again after that; the prize winner was in the local judge’s creative writing class.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      This is quite a story.
      Thank you so much for taking the risk of telling it.
      There is a parable at work here I think, about what we consider to be our best work not always being recognised in the wider culture.
      It’s a lesson I am still learning.
      As ever with good wishes
      Anthony

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  7. Pingback: Do Clap and Please Buy Books (if you want to) | Emma Lee's Blog

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