Applauding between Poems

When I first started giving readings of my work, in the late 80s, poets were asked to read for 45 minutes, in most cases, if they were headlining, with a Q&A session to follow. People listened attentively, the poet made a few comments sometimes between poems, things that were interesting, things that were not in the poem itself.
These days it’s much more likely to be given a headline slot of up to 30 minutes, and sometimes, when reading with other poets, ten minutes may be all that is given. This isn’t a bad thing; it makes for poetry events which include a lot more variety, especially when the readers are professional in sticking to their time slots. There is also a proliferation of open mic spots and even whole events dedicated to open mics. Again, no bad things, especially with so many people writing these days, who all need to try out their poems on a live audience. Performance poetry has grown apace; a kind of cross between acting with one’s own script and stand up comedy/rant, which in turn has a cross-over with live musicians.
And this is where an odd situation (to me) has arisen. When at a music gig, where a song will go on for a while, maybe 5-7 minutes, of course one applauds each song. Similarly, when a performance poet delivers their script, usually quite long, 4 or 5 minutes of performance, of course it is right to applaud in between.
I am the last person to seek division between page poets and performance poets, and of course that is not in any way a binary – I am a ‘page’ poet who is often complimented on readings, and I know many other ‘page’ poets who are wonderful performers – Jan Dean springs to mind. Lots of poets who also write ‘poems which do not leave children out’ have honed reading skills in assemblies in front of 100+ kids – and kids will not stand for boring, navel-gazing readings. But I prefer it when audiences do not applaud individual poems in my sets.
The reason for this? I choose a set of poems that work well together and lead one from another. I time the set to allow a few minutes for any comments I might feel moved to make. There is no time for applause. But that is a merely practical consideration.
The main reason is a poem needs space to breathe. It needs a little silence at the end of it, so it can sink in. This is especially important for a short or moving poem. The best and nicest thing a poet can hear at the end of a poem is a quiet ‘mmm’, that is involuntary and genuine, which tells them the poem has sunk in, had had the effect it was designed to have. For this reason, I leave a space between poems when I read, and never ever speak at the end, even if there was something I forgot to say. There has to be a silence between one poem and introducing the next.
The current compulsion to applaud in between poems comes in part from the open mic event, where only one poem might be read. It also comes from the gig culture and performance culture. I fear it is also because people have lost the skill of listening for a chunk of time and feel the need to do something other than listen. Applause and cheering (amazingly this happens) allows some audience participation. But I would prefer the participation of active listening, really letting the poem ‘spray you in the face’, to steal a phrase from the great William Carlos Williams.
So when I do not applaud between poems, because I am still pondering the words I have heard, I am not being rude. When I ask audiences would they please not clap during my set, but save it to the end, I am not being rude. I ask for a silence so the poem can do its work. To clap at the end of a one or two minute poem is like drinking tea from a delicate china cup, and then shattering it against the wall. I know many poets feel the same way as I do. So this is a plea. Let the poem sink into your ears, and your minds and hearts will follow, if the poet has done the job. Let us spell you, without the magic being broken.



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30 responses to “Applauding between Poems

  1. While I understand what you mean, I don’t agree. For me, not getting the appluase is like sipping from a cup of tea – and then throwing the rest away. I want the audience to participate, I want them to express their feelings about the poem, and I want them to applaud each poem. I tend to take a fluid set and then alter it according to the audience’s reactions. I need the audience to express their appropation (or otherwise). This is why I’m always so terrible performing to a camera – I need an audience, clapping, laughing and joining in.
    But then we’re all different, and have different approaches. I’m a clown, whereas your work is like chamber music, and best appreciated as such, without the hoots and parps that mine requires.

    • Maybe, although your poems obviously work on the page, you veer more towards the performance scene, where, as I said above, one feels applause is right and fitting after each poem. We are all different. But when I ask audiences not to break the spell I am trying to create with applause, they still want to do it – which is why I wrote this, and also to explain I am not being rude if I don’t want to join in the inbetween noise. It’s because I am still letting the poem sink in.

      • Sometimes I do a series of short poems or haiku and ask the audience beforehand not to applaud those. As long as the audience knows what to do, it’s ok.

  2. Specific audiences and venues have their own conventions re applause and sometimes it’s disconcerting. I agree about ‘sinking in’ time – sometimes words need that so that they continue to float out. Open mics encouraging new readers use applause to support as much as anything and if it helps new voices that’s good. But on balance I’m with you on this – unless the occasion and the set are designed as ‘ and a good time had by all’, then silence is the setting that serves a poem best.

  3. Open mics have to have applause, but that’s not a set. Individual poems or short sets are somewhat different.

  4. Reblogged this on Tartantights's Blog and commented:
    Hey everyone. Yesterday I reblogged a post for the first time in the history of tartantights not expecting to do it again for a very long time. Yet less than 24 hours after reblogging Pete Wishart’s post on the problems facing the Scottish Labour Party I am posting the thoughts of respected poet Angela Topping on appluase beetween poems at poetry reading and spoken word nights and though what she has to say, will in the minds of some be controversial she has made me think of things from a slightly different angle than was previously the case. Like the post by Pete Wishart, this is one I would recommend you read and I would encourage you to leave your comments on a topic worthy of discussion.

    Love And Best Wishes
    Gayle X

    • Thanks, Gayle, that is appreciated. I am not dictating what anyone else might want in terms of applause. This is a preference of mine which I want ed to discuss as some people find it odd, but it was far more usual in the past and is still usual at most headline readings.

  5. Read your blog and I am with you on this. Clapping between every poem becomes meaningless, whereas the occasional burst of spontaneous applause after one poem in a set is natural. A silent audience is an attentive audience, and an attentive audience is always potentially at the point of inner applause, a long and sustained interior clapping, or if they don’t like the poems, they are potentially silently booing or non-plussed, but both responses respect the right of the poet to present his or her work in a manner that honours the poems. It depends on the venue as well; for the performance poetry/gig culture applauding regularly is probably supportive and essential, but the fad for clapping diminishes the experience of page-poem poetry readings. I run a monthly poetry event and while there is no dictum from me as to how the audience responds, everyone sits quietly and listens attentively, and the applause at the end is long and profound. The most recent award-winning feature poet, after several conversations with people afterwards said: ‘God they really listened!’

  6. I agree with Angela about the proliferation of applause and particularly hooting and cheering at the end of every poem in a set. Whilst every venue has different ambience and customs and these can be taken into account the constant applause, and cheering, panders to the need for constant validation and perhaps equates to Facebook “likes” i.e. the louder the more your poem is acceptable. However it can be intimidating for the new voice at a new venue, consider this “you know nobody and others receive more applause than you afterwards you wonder whether your poems were good and whether the venue is the right place for you “. That’s one of the downside of this practice and another is being at the Southbank and listening to three eminent poets one of which was the R.S. Thomas, whilst the others read and explained each poem, its birth, etc. and nobody applauded until the end, he took to the lectern opened his book and read for twenty minutes: – no explanation, no applause, just pure poetry with a silence of two minutes between each poem. At the end 300 people breathed stunned by his work before filling the room with applause that lasted 15 minutes. It was an experience I’ll never forget and filled me with admiration and the wish to write. Can we aspire to follow his example?

    • Angi

      The inbetween chat is another interesting topic Carolyn. I’ve been to readings where a poet presents an ‘unadulterated’ set as Angela describes. And I’ve been to readings where a poet chats about the context of a poem, or offers a relevant anecdote (often self-deprecating) as an introduction. Each has its place as part of live poetry performance. For I would argue that even the ‘unadulterated’ set is a performance. The modulation of voice, the intonation, the pertinent pause, each complements the text and delivers something different from the experience of reading the same poems from the page.
      As a poet who is interested in process as much as outcome, I find it interesting to hear something of the background. The Lightfoot Letters, for example, stands on its own in terms of the quality of text, but for a live audience a little discussion of how the poems developed, and who the individuals in each poem were, adds another dimension to the live experience. Besides which, it may encourage others to explore their own family history for inspiration.

      • I am of the opinion that a little chat inbetween can be fascinating and gives the audience a break from the intensity of the poems. It’s also wonderful to glean a little nugget about the process, like when Matt Simpson used to read ‘My Grandmother’s African Grey’ and he would often comment that he was like the parrot, the posh educated voice (of his Auntie Bell) and the ‘lovely common as muck’ of his grandmother both existed within him. In the case of that reading by R.S. Thomas, he was reading to an audience very familiar with his work, and also he was a very reserved man, so those factors may have led him to dispense with the chat. It’s a personal decision. Personally I love the chat if it’s well done, but never if it’s s ‘standard disclaimer’ (to steal Rosie Garland’s phrase), or a rambling set of excuses, or summarising the poem beforehand. But I do understand that newcomers can fall into these traps and the only way to get better is practice. Thank you for your very kind words about The Lightfoot Letters. There is indeed a story behind that sequence.

      • I’d be upset if I wasn’t applauded, at the end of whatever I was doing.

    • I’ve found that newcomers are welcomed with more applause and encouragement, not less.

      • That is true, but I am not speaking of newcomers. I’ve been a published and ‘out there’ reading poet since I was 19. I used to read in a pub in Liverpool city centre called The Why Not, which was a fairly tough audience. Applause and encouragement are not the same thing. Sometimes applause is automatic. I prefer encouragement by really close listening or by, as people do, someone coming up to me afterwards for a quiet word, or dare I say it, buying a book!
        Newcomers may need applause and cheering. That’s fine if they want it. But I have noticed a big shift recently and I prefer things the way they were before. That’s all.

      • Angela, I was responding to ‘However it can be intimidating for the new voice at a new venue, consider this “you know nobody and others receive more applause than you afterwards you wonder whether your poems were good and whether the venue is the right place for you “. ‘ I’ve found the opposite to be the case. As long as the newcomer lets the host know that they are new, they will be showered with applause and encouragement.

      • I think, as well, Cathy, you have been involved in a warm and friendly set of reading events in Manchester, which can be like going into a friendship group. May you always get the applause you enjoy.

      • Yes – I have been lucky. If I turned up at an event, performed a poem and was met with silence, I’d probably leave.

  7. Reblogged this on Carolyn O' Connell and commented:
    This is well worth reading and a custom that should be encouraged to help both new and experienced poets

  8. That is a wonderful anecdote abour R S Thomas which captures just what I meant.

  9. Pingback: Applauding between Poems | Carolyn O' Connell

  10. I think hosts/organisers should let guest/headlining poets know in advance whether the event has a tradition of applauding each poem or at the end of a set, then the performing poet can let the audience know if they’re reading a series of interlinked poems and would prefer applause at the end of the reading. I go to two regular poetry nights. One has a tradition of applause after each poem even for the headline act. Poets reading in the open mic slots for the first time, are introduced as first time readers and get applauded too so there’s no awkwardness about the new reader thinking “they applauded everyone else but not me”. At the other, the tradition is for applause at the end of a set, however, there may be spontaneous applause after a particularly good reading of one poem. I’ve been a quest reader at both and for me both approaches worked, but because I knew how each event worked I was prepared beforehand. The key thing is that poets don’t treat the audience with contempt or make them feel awkward for reacting in the ‘wrong’ way. That means explanations up front, not when the audience have applauded the first poem and get told “don’t clap”.

    • I agree with you, but even when I have asked for no clapping at the start, people do feel uncomfortable with that and still do it. It’s a good idea for a regular night if the organiser does let the guest know, but not all events are regular. I would never ever advocate treating an audience with contempt. I aim to engage and draw people in when I read. I am fine with spontaneous clapping but it’s not always appropriate. Sometimes the last few words of the poem have been encroached upon in readings I have been to.

  11. Gram Joel Davies

    Perhaps a friend to hold up a card with “clap now” on it at the appropriate moments 😀

  12. Re Angi’s comment 12/8 I was not criticising the other poets at the reading – wouldn’t dare as they are both wonderful and I also do the “intro” bit but was trying to emphasise the wonder and mesmerising effect of listening to the amazing R.S.. He was at a place I will never achieve and was able to hold and control a theatre of people by his voice, many who had never heard him before. I agree with a lot of what has been said and especially regarding organizers informing in advance what is customary in the venue. I’ve been to every type from slams to small readings and all are different. However when you bring a lot of support please consider the poet who comes alone -no one there ready to cheer or comfort or even buy you a drink. They have brought their poem and or book, make them welcome by listening and supporting them and if you can buy their book for they’ll leave feeling loved and appreciated. Perhaps in years to come you’ll be able to say “I was at his/her first reading and/or bought the first book” you’ll perhaps be talking about a future R.S. in 20 years time, also it helps everyone by keeping the presses going

    • That’s a very good point. People don’t seem to buy books at readings like they used to, even when the readings are free. Such a pity as few bookshops stock poetry and one of the best ways to buy is at a reading where you have just heard a sample of the poems. It’s impossible to be a good writer without being a good reader, and that is especially true in the case of poetry.