My debut poetry collection had just been published, hurrah!, and we were visiting friends for the weekend. Of course, I’d taken copies of my book, in case they were hooked by my subtle, and not so subtle references to the collection. Being good friends, it turned out to be a given that Carl and June always intended to buy one, with the disclaimer that they weren’t ‘into’ poetry. The joy for me wasn’t so much their handing over the eleven quid, thank you very much, but the fact that they now ‘owned’ the poems. As they bought the book, my poetry became theirs. It was now up to them to read the poems and draw on their power. Or was it?

I caught them occasionally looking through the book, yet I couldn’t make out any sign of the emotions the poems might have sparked. I found myself hoping that they’d wait, and not read it in my presence. But after dinner, and admittedly after a glass of wine, they started talking about the collection — what had inspired the poems? how did I go about writing? etc. Despite having vowed to myself never to read my work to people other than on stage, or to the cat when I’m rehearsing, I heard myself offering to read a particular poem, Faith in Pharmacy — it has deep personal meaning, informed by family traumas, a daughter’s chaotic life at the hands of an abusive husband.

After I’d finished my impromptu performance, there was silence for a while. Carl admitted that he’d read that poem in the book beforehand, but hearing me read it made it… different.

‘Different how?’

‘You know, different. Very different. Incredibly moving.’ He could hardly get the words out, this big guy who could chain-saw a tree in the time it takes me to sharpen my pencil. I could see that he was moved, as was June. Why hadn’t he had that feeling when reading it off the page? Where was the power then?

When I wrote the poem some time back, it was for me. The writing was a selfish act, an attempt to make sense of senseless personal events, making me feel better about it all.

Now it’s in the book, I guess the reader ‘owns’ it.  People at spoken word events have described it as a powerful poem. Powerful how? Is it as powerful on the page, as it is on the stage? If I hadn’t ‘performed’ it for our friends, it would still only be on the page in the hands of those two readers who weren’t into poetry, and they might have brushed it aside merely as words on paper.  

Recently I went to an event where a popular and well-known performance poet was headlining. He made a casual aside between poems, saying that his poetry was ‘better listened to, rather than read… but don’t tell my publisher, as I’ve another book coming out!’ I bought his book, and agree with him. His spoken word always has immense power. Yet those same poems in his book tend to lose some of that power, in my opinion, even if I try to recall the poet’s voice and charisma.

I suppose when a poem is performed on stage, a poet can emphasise and mould it into a rhythmic shape, and effortlessly communicate the emotions which informed the poem. And yet, in my collection there are poems which I prefer not to perform at events, poems which I’d rather leave on the page for the reader to (hopefully) draw on their power without my interference. I’m not even sure why that is — perhaps it’s because some of those poems’ power lies in individual line breaks, the visible shape and its interaction with content, even the white space on the page. Maybe, sometimes, it’s because a particular poem needs revisiting more than once to understand what it’s trying to say. Or maybe it’s because the power of a poem is beyond the actual words, and needs time to discover.

A ‘mainstream’ audience member at an event might be delighted by the more formal poetry performers, and perhaps unmoved, for example, by ‘young angry poets’ who use their anger as their primary device or source of energy in a poem. And that’s not to say that connecting with a spoken word piece which excites you with its sparkling clarity can’t be equally enjoyed if it’s on the page. Poetry, whether spoken or read, has the power to console, to annoy, to amuse, to empathise. It’s a complicated relationship between the poet, the poem, and the reader or audience. It could be argued that each holds the power.

John Lawrence gave up a career in IT Consultancy to gain a BA in Creative Writing at The University of Birmingham, UK, where he ‘found’ poetry. He loves writing poems that are witty, entertaining and unsettling, making the reader think, without being wilfully obscure. His work is informed by family, experience, his roots in a Salvation Army household, and the ever-present doubts about why-are-we-here. His debut collection ‘The boy who couldn’t say his name’ (V Press) was published March 31st 2019. The Poetry Book Society reviewed it as ‘…a hugely entertaining debut collection’. John is a popular and respected performer in the local poetry scene in the Midlands, UK.

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