One-Minute Book Reviews

July 19, 2007

The Case Against Poetry Readings: Quote of the Day (Philip Larkin)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:03 pm
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Most poets today seem to give readings. One who usually declined invitations to do this was Philip Larkin (1922–1985), one of the great English poets of the 20th century. Larkin explained why in an interview with the Paris Review:

“I don’t give readings, no, although I have recorded three of my collections, just to show how I should read them. Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much – the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go at your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing ‘there’ and ‘their’ and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may an audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the ‘score’ that doesn’t ‘come to life’ until it’s ‘performed.’ It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should ‘hear’ it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.”

Philip Larkin in an interview with Robert Phillips in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Seventh Series (Viking, 1986), edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by John Updike. This is one of the great interviews in the Paris Review series for several reasons, including Larkin’s genius, Phillips’s skill as an interviewer and the scope of the questions. You can find the full interview at the site for the Paris Review . (I’m having trouble linking directly to the interview, but you can find it by going to the site and entering “Larkin” in the search box. The interview appeared in the Summer 1982 issue.) Most libraries and many bookstores also have books in the Paris Review series.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
I go to poetry readings and read from my novels at bookstores and elsewhere, but I can see Larkin’s point. How about you?

You can find more information on Larkin and read his poem “Home Is So Sad” at

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. It is only a recent phenomenon – all this silent reading.

    Punctuation is a paltry attempt at creating voice on a flat page.

    Words are sound libraries and as such are closer to being music then Larkin gives them credit for.

    Having written this I should also add that I write every day, and I struggle mightily to make the words I write sing like music in the ears of a potentially silent reader.

    Voice is the king and queen of literature; forget that and the resonance of your own muse will surly be hushed as well.


    Comment by onepoet4man — July 20, 2007 @ 10:28 am | Reply

  2. Amen Poetman.

    Normally I would simply agree to disagree, but Larkin was so wrong, on so many levels, I can’t even do that. Go to youtube and see what I mean:

    Four Quartets read by Willem Dafoe

    Don’t you just love it when brilliant geniuses can’t see what you can? God I love it when that happens.

    Tom Heehler

    Comment by heehler — July 20, 2007 @ 3:02 pm | Reply

  3. Poetman: You’re so right that “voice is king and queen …” Voice is a subject that is close to my heart, and I’m always looking for quotes-of-the-day on it. One of my favorites came from the late Donald M. Murray and appeared on this site on Jan. 29, 2007 Thanks so much for the comment.

    Tom: Yes, there are quite a lot of geniuses like that, aren’t there? Glad you agree that Larkin ranks among them — he is one of my gods. I admire his Paris Review interview so much, I’m probably going to put up another quote from it by the end of the month, though I normally try to vary the sources of these.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 20, 2007 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

  4. I resonate quite a bit with Larkin’s comment. I have been to many poetry readings where I have not been familiar with the poems at all and have become very confused for the reasons he mentioned–the inability to stop and get the sense of a line, homonyms, etc. The only thing you can enjoy is maybe a turn of phrase or a funny line–but you won’t understand the context of it. (Some poets try to solve this by giving lots of context but often this gets clunky.) At the end we are supposed to be able to a) judge the quality of the poetry and b) be emotionally moved by the work. Hasn’t happened to me yet, though I’ve pretended my fair share.

    I do not think he is saying that poetry shouldn’t be read aloud or that voice isn’t important in poetry. (He goes on to say that you should be hearing his voice in the room with you!) I have heard many performances of poems that are beautiful and bring the poem to life, after I am very familiar with the poem itself–but I think the convention of the poetry reading, where a poet reads new work and the audience is expected to fully appreciate it on the first reading is overrated. I’m glad someone’s said something about it. Thanks for posting the quote!

    Comment by ryanpendell — July 20, 2007 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

  5. Ryan: I agree that Larkin wasn’t saying that poetry shouldn’t be read aloud but giving his reasons for avoiding it (and maybe trying to ratify the instincts of others who might have qualms about the practice).

    Your comment about how clunky all that “context” can get seems right on the mark to me. I’ve been to readings at which the poet gave so much context up front that it upstaged, clashed with or even defeated the purpose or the poem. For example, I’ve heard introductions to a poem that were much, much longer than the poem itself … which seems out of whack. If you give a very long introduction, the poem almost comes as an anti-climax. I wonder if it might be better for poets to provide the context after reading a poem if they want to add it? I’ve never seen that happen, but it might help to keep the intro from upstaging the poem. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful comment.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 20, 2007 @ 8:25 pm | Reply

  6. It’s nice to read everyones responses, but I wish even more that I could hear them!

    Some further observations about Larkin’s quote.

    A mass where a congregation was forced to read the liturgy and sermon so that they were “not missing things” would probably mean that there would be more people asleep in churches on Sundays.

    As a child, if you had never ever heard language before being taught to read, you wouldn’t be able to read today.

    My disagreement with Larkin is not that he places so much importance on the written word; it’s that he places so little importance on the spoken.

    He writes that “poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music.” What seems truer to me is that writing evolved as a means of preserving the sound and the cadence of poetry for future listening/reading.


    Comment by onepoet4man — July 21, 2007 @ 12:25 am | Reply

  7. Come on guys. Larkin “does not like hearing things in public, even music.”
    Even music? Please. That should tell you something. What’s more, you should not be so put off by the fact that you don’t fully understand a poem the first time you “hear it” in public. That’s half the fun! Not understanding it.

    It’s no accident that the greatest poet to ever grace this earth, did nothing but speak his poems aloud, and never put a single word to paper.

    And allow me to preempt anyone who might be clever enough to respond to this with the phrase, “even Homer nods.”

    Comment by heehler — July 21, 2007 @ 3:31 am | Reply

  8. Poetman: An interesting and subtle distinction: it’s “not that he places so much importance on the written word; it’s he places so little on the spoken.” I wonder if his view represents, to some extent, a difference between the perspective of the British (particularly of Larkin’s generation) and Americans. His generation in England was much less comfortable with expressing emotions in public than our current generation in America is. And to the degree that poetry is always “about” emotions, his views on readings may reflect that. But I hadn’t really thought about that aspect of it until I read your comment. Thanks!

    Tom: Okay, Homer is always the trump card on the spoken-versus-written issue. But I admit I admire Larkin’s courage in saying that he doesn’t like hearing things, “even music,” in public. It’s such a contrarian view … and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone express it. It may relate to what I said to Poetman. Maybe Larkin didn’t like hearing things in public partly because it might require him to show HIS emotions in public (as well as having to “screen out” others emotions).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 21, 2007 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  9. I’m sorry Jan but I just can’t seem to see what you’re seeing here. Anyone who would avoid Mozart in the park for fear of having their emotions revealed is one fry short of a happy meal. And as you know, nobody ever accused Larkin of falling dead center of the standard bell curve.

    But you’re right. It does take courage to say what he said.

    Comment by heehler — July 21, 2007 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

  10. Janice: There are many more “trump cards” than Homer.

    As I am sure you know. (“In the beginning there was the word and the word was God” a word by the way that existed only as a sound for years and years – until various cultures invented written languages.)

    All the math and engineering used to create Stone Hedge and other ancient marvels was passed from generation to generation in oral containers of sound.

    A written word is our modern adaptation of a sound container. A folder if you will that when opened with breath will more fully reveal the mystery of what has been contained there.

    We forget that written language is a limiter. Read the word “tree” for instance. The word “tree” is suppose to express the idea of all trees as they have existed for all time.

    By the way Janice I apologize for not saying it earlier – oops, I mean writing it earlier – your site is awesome.


    Comment by onepoet4man — July 21, 2007 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  11. Tom: Okay, maybe I’m not being too coherent here. But I do think that public displays of emotion still do make many Brits more uncomfortable than they make us (though that may have begun to change with the death of Diana). And maybe I should have pointed out one thing that a blogger who linked to this post noted: Larkin seems had poor hearing that he was losing it by the time he gave his PR interview … that may put a different spin on his words for some people.

    Poetman: Yes, definitely, there are other trump cards besides Homer, including that “In the beginning …”(And a sermon I heard last weekend reminded me that two books in the Bible actually have as their first words “In the beginning,” Genesis and John. It’s so odd that although I know both books, if I’d been a contestant on Jeopardy! and Alex had said, “These two books of the Bible begin with the same phrase” I’d probably have lost the money — I just never put the two together.)

    Thank you so much for your kind words about my site, too. I’ve been having so much fun in the past few days with the “Philip Larkin/Harry Potter” title bout on the WordPress News Front Page. I would never, ever have predicted that this post (a 25- year-old quote about poetry!) would be as popular as it has been, especially this weekend.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 21, 2007 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

  12. “A written word is our modern adaptation of a sound container. A folder if you will that when opened with breath will more fully reveal the mystery of what has been contained there.”

    Not bad Poetman,

    not bad at all.

    Comment by heehler — July 21, 2007 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

  13. […] Harayda pulled a very interesting quote from poet Philip Larkin—he isn’t a big fan of poetry readings. The quote comes from an old interview in the Paris Review. I just finished the anthology Paris […]

    Pingback by » — July 23, 2007 @ 5:09 pm | Reply

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