Saturday, 19 October 2019

Audiences at poetry readings

At one of my recent readings in the U.K., a Spanish woman approached me at the interval to say hello. She explained that she’d seen my event advertised in the local paper and had come along, just as she might attend a concert, exhibition or lecture. She was amazed to find that she was the only non-poet in the building apart from the barman and two long-suffering spouses.

This is because in Spain (in my own personal experience) on average maybe only two or three people at any given poetry reading are poets. The rest have an interest in the arts. They’re often teachers, academics, visual artists, etc, who enjoy poetry just as they enjoy other genres. This cross-fertilisation means that poetry reaches far more readers than in the U.K., while also overcoming the simple fact that a large chunk of people at most poetry event in the U.K. would actually love to be giving the reading themselves.

So, having identified a problem and an uncomfortable comparison, I’m pondering the causes and potential solutions. Firstly, I’d argue that we could all do more to reach out to the millions who think poetry’s not for them except when attending weddings or funerals. Secondly, I do feel a concerted, coordinated, long-term effort is required to ensure that poetry acquires new readers who don’t necessarily aspire to being poets themselves.

Here’s one example of how things are done in parts of Spain: instead of getting a poet into a specific school to do a workshop, certain councils bring in a poet every month of the academic year to give a reading in the morning at the main theatre in the city for kids from all the schools (the poet’s work is previously read in class, of course), followed by a reading at the same venue in the evening for the general public. Everyone who attends either event is given a tiny booklet of the poet’s work for free to take home with them. Hundreds of people progressively learn how to listen to and read poetry without seeing it as something that’s written by poets for other poets. 

Would this work in the U.K.?


  1. This is all very interesting. I find it slightly dismaying that so many poets in the English speaking world seem convinced of poetry's extreme importance, but also rather oblivious to the fact that hardly anyone is interested in it at all, except other poets. They are also often uninterested in the fact that poetry is so much more popular in many, if not most, non-English-speaking countries. Certainly in countries like the UK and Canada, many seem to be turned off by the way poetry is taught in schools. The above suggestions could help but it seems like there's a lot of work to do to overcome negative feelings towards poetry.

    1. Exactly, Clarissa! If poets only write for poets, their relevance is hugely diminished. In fact, certain poets are even sniffy about others who do reach out to different readerships...!

  2. I've been bugged by this for decades. I recently had an experience that gave me a bit of a different view. I started sticking poems up on trees in a local Greenway walking park. I discovered I have a rather good sized appreciative audience and I'd bet none or very few are poets. Maybe if we went ahead and found ways to share poems informally, surprisingly, non-academically, like this, we might generate a difference. I am heartened!