What is it about poetry that brings out the worst in people?
I thought a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club this Saturday would be the perfect way to kill a dreary afternoon that might otherwise have been wasted on perfunctory holiday shopping. I should say that although I love hearing authors speak — one of the best jobs I ever had was at an independent book shop where everyone from George Saunders to Jane Smiley did time at the lectern — I don't often go to poetry readings, because I am not any great lover of poetry. I dislike poetry both academically and personally. A long and tedious college course with a professor who was more interested in testing us on the differences between metonymy and synecdoche (still unmastered by me, alas) left a rift between myself and most of French poetry, pre-Ponge. And I remain fundamentally very suspicious of any class of writer that considers a day when you come up with five lines to be the blistering height of productivity. I like a bit of John Ashbery, but upon reading most poetry, I tend to think, Well, that sure is poetry. And that's about all there is to say about that.
Or at least I thought that would be all there was to say about that, that poetry would go on being poetry and I would go on not especially liking it, until I went to the aforementioned poetry reading, and found myself captivated. A woman named Ariana Reines read a poem called "When I Looked At Your Cock, My Imagination Died." You can listen to the whole thing. It was wonderful and I loved it. But then I was informed that I was loving it all wrong, because I laughed at the funny parts.
I wasn't the only one who found "When I Looked At Your Cock, My Imagination Died" to be occasionally, and intentionally, hilarious. The audience reaction ran from spontaneous, brief giggles to pointed exhalations, and these kinds of responses could be heard at least every few stanzas. "Imagination" is long work with an astounding variety of imagery, and it's narrated with immediacy and conviction; Reines made a point of describing innocent scenes with dirty language ("Then I saw the fists of the trees going deep into the hairy sun"), and she read the really dirty parts with a kind of disarmingly innocent directness. "I think there is a zit on your ass but you have a tan," raised a quick general chuckle. So did "When the Latina takes on the two cocks, she knocks on the door with a hard hat." And "Nobody has any hair," which Reines repeated quizzically, for effect, like a refrain. These parts of the poem were funny because they reminded one just how banal pornography is — its endless fundamental sameness, its dull functionality. Anyone could write a funny piece narrating some standard-issue RedTube: to home in on that emotional flatness, wrap it in other meditations on life and relationships, James Joyce and trips to Duane Reade, and turn it all into something affecting was strange and nice.
So I laughed. And not just at the naughty words: lines like "It was shortly thereafter that I first heard, or at least first noticed, the note of irony in his voice whenever decorum compelled that he greet me" also moved me to laugh, and perhaps wince in identification. I wasn't the only one who occasionally laughed, and I wasn't the loudest — in my opinion, nobody was disrespectfully loud; these were punctuating, laughing-with chuckles, not persistent, laughing-at rumbles, and you can listen to the full recording if you would like to make up your own mind about that or anything else — but I was laughing from time to time because I was engaged, and it felt great.
After we applauded, Reines deadpanned, "So. Does anyone have any questions? Concerns?" She scanned the room, her hand shielding her eyes from the stage lights. "Everything's...cool?"
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There was a long pause. Then a woman across the aisle from me shot me and my two friends — also, full disclosure, periodic laughers — a withering look. "So," she said. "I found myself really uncomfortable with the laughter during the part of your, um, you know, the, the sexier sections? Which I found, you know, powerful and formal and — all this other stuff going on. And I understand that laughter is something that naturally emerges in such situations, and it's — but I just wanted to call attention to my discomfort." There was silence, and then the audience went apeshit. (Or at least the most apeshit I have ever seen at a reading.)
"I felt that strongly," joined in a man's voice, from behind us. "I also felt that too!"
"I felt bugged!" someone shouted.
"It happens in the movies all the time," said a voice from the right. Everyone was talking over each other now. I made a video clip of the worst of the scuffle; I think right then, when we became, momentarily, the equivalent of those people with noisy candy wrappers at the art house was my favorite part.
"Let the laughers stand up!" shouted a woman who I think was Eileen Myles. "Let's interrogate the laughers." Eileen fucking "rock star of poetry" Myles was mad at us. (Was she serious? I couldn't tell.) A few people I didn't know stood up, then sat down again. Others raised their hands. I stood, copped to being a laugher, then felt sheepish, like I was taking up the flag of a country I wasn't sure I could defend. We tried to make a case for ourselves — "I laughed, 'cause it was good," I offered, kind of lamely, over the shouts; my girlfriend sat, open mouthed. My guy friend said, "I thought it was an absolutely savage satire of the idiocy of pornography."
"There was laughter as soon as the word 'cock' appeared!" shot back a man who found our defense unconvincing. It was then that I realized, these people weren't questioning our etiquette: they were questioning our politics. This man had appointed himself to the task of stopping me and the other laughers from ganging up on the nice lady poet. To this crowd, we might as well have been frat boys crushing cans on our foreheads. We were making people "uncomfortable" with our "snickering" and it was time to "interrogate" that.
"Why are you mad?" called out Eileen Myles — again, I think — when my friend repeated that it was a savagely funny satire that we were responding to. The first woman, the one with the nasty look and the somewhat aggressive sense of propriety, said she hadn't meant to imply in any way that she thought laughing was wrong. "Of course laughing's not wrong!" I shouted. I couldn't help myself. I wasn't about to have my feminism impugned by these people — or my manners. "Why are you angry?" said Eileen Myles. "First you were laughing, now you're angry."
"Wait, no!" called out Reines. "We're all having a great time here! Come on, it's a party!"
Everyone quieted down and she read Baudelaire — a poet I don't much love, but who I suspect would have at least shared my reaction to that little display of middle-class small-mindedness. Our accuser was reduced to claiming, "Anybody here who knows me's not gonna say I lack a sense of humor." (Never a good position to have to defend.) Mr. "But You Only Laughed At 'Cock'!" started talking to my guy friend; I was shaken, my girlfriend mentioned, for the benefit of the various people now looking at us, having a degree in Women's Studies. I wonder what it is about poetry that motivates people to such displays of passion. What makes us politicize and police each other's reactions to poetry in ways that we don't for prose? Why was such a vocal minority of the audience inclined to think they had a right to hold the rest of us accountable for their subjective feelings of discomfort? The only other time I've seen tempers flare at a literary event was at a Hone Tuwhara reading I attended in high school; a middle-aged woman cut in front of me and my two best friends in line to get a book signed after sneering, "Wisdom before beauty, dearies." I very nearly told her that she, having neither, ought to get out of our way; she tried the move on someone else in line, and it became a shoving match. The way this coterie of audience members on Saturday impeached our reaction to Ariana Reines' work was, I think, pretty ugly. But so was my response. I was so livid I told my girlfriend that if Mr. "But You Only Laughed At 'Cock'!" ever located his, he'd find the line funny, too. Then, feeling proud at my rejoinder — I never think of these things on the spot! — I said it to his face as we walked past him. That was also, I think, pretty ugly. I felt bad about saying that even hours after, when a couple whiskeys and much, much re-hashing of the event had calmed my nerves. Maybe that kind of stupid passion, stemming as it does from the implication of yourself in what you read, is the point of poetry. I don't know.
For what it's worth, I went up to Ariana Reines afterwards, and told her I very much enjoyed her poetry. (It's really good! Not that I know anything about poetry.) And, I said, I hope my laughter didn't offend you.
She took my hand in both of hers, and replied, "I thought your laughter was great."