A few weeks ago, Helena Nelson sent me a link telling the story of a poetry reading. This, however, was no ordinary reading. The idea is that, without telling the audience the nature of the event, you write a batch of poems over a few months – the very best you can do, nothing dashed off or obviously ephemeral. Once you’ve read them, you tear them all up. No other copies can exist and you have to delete them from your hard drive before performing them. In other words, the performance is a one-off experience, never to be repeated. You can read about it in more detail here.
I’m not sure I could do this. In fact, I’m fairly sure I couldn’t. I could dash off a few competent enough poems, read them and then burn them. No problem. But good stuff – I don’t think so. Good stuff is rare and takes too much time for me to contemplate destroying it. Now I know that’s the point – the very nature of the one-off, never to be repeated performance is its singularity. The audience go home knowing they’ve seen and heard something rare. If it’s good enough, they will feel a sense of privilege. They will remember being there on that night for a long time to come. But shouldn’t any performance be like that? A poem read on one night will be different from the same poem being read by the same poet on another night. Also, I expect some people will go home feeling a sense of loss, even outrage, even if just for one poem, or a few lines they can no longer exactly remember. I guess this kind of event may help us reconsider why poetry is important, especially if we often begin to feel that it isn’t really.
Let’s imagine a similar event, this time with a line-up of excellent poets reading one poem each, which they all then tear up. Memorable, yes. And at least the load is shared. But could I tear up even one really good poem?
Then today I read this at Don Share’s blog, a quote from Virginia Woolf on the active life of an average book (not long) – “Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time?” There would be more space in my house as a result. But I resist this too. The big-sellers which need second editions might not be the best books. My shelves could end up filled with second-division stuff while the great poems disintegrate. ‘Buy a Salt book’, suggests Don’s Jekyll to Virgina Woolf’s Hyde. I think I’d go along with that.