September 12th, 2014 / 5:39 pm
Craft Notes

What makes boring poetry boring?

I posted this question on facebook: ‘What makes boring poetry boring?’

People responded with a variety of reasons: no imagination, using tired techniques, failure to innovate, failure to obscure, the smack of phoniness, being too safe, being edgy for the sake of being edgy, cliches, the culture of commodification, not making an emotional connection. All of these make sense. All of these are different.

Boring is subjective. I dunno.

I was thinking about Alice Notley, how I was a fan of her work until I heard her read. I mean. I still like her written work, but I was not impressed with her performance and it changed how I feel about the work in toto.

Going to the reading felt like a special occasion. My friend invited me last minute, I didn’t know it was happening, we had just been hanging out and drinking coffee in her apartment, and it felt serendipitous. Like a special occasion, like a dinner party or something. Like we were going to sit at the grownups table. I remember being excited getting ready to leave for the event, rolling a spliff for the walk to the bus stop, feeling lucky I had brought my copy of Mysteries of Small Houses, a book I had already been carrying around for the past few weeks, hoping that I could get Notley to sign it after the show. It was cold and raining as we walked to the bus stop. One of the last times I remember it raining in the city.

So we got there. So Notley read.

After about 40 minutes sitting on a bench inside an auditorium I had had enough. My butt was hurting. I was bored, or at least I thought Notley’s delivery was boring and I just wanted it to be over. No one else in the audience at this particular reading in San Francisco seemed to agree with me. Everyone seemed captivated. I kept drifting off into daydreams, but my fantasies were interrupted by an older woman, supposedly suffering from dementia (or maybe she was just punk as fuck), who loudly shouted out ‘Is this over yet?‘ to her son videotaping the reading (who apparently videotapes a lot of readings but never posts or shows the finished product to anyone).

I was like, ‘hell yeah!’ and in my mind gave the older woman a high-five. This outburst, however, prompted Notley to pause her poem for a moment to say ‘fuck off’ to the older woman, drawing cheers from the audience.

I thought it was pretty corny that telling an old woman to ‘fuck off’ got such a positive response, particularly because I thought it was awesome that the older woman said pretty much exactly what I had been thinking, but it just goes to show that two women’s ‘boring’ can be the rest of the audience’s ‘totally captivating experience.’ Art is subjective. Duh. But it is interesting to unpack why we choose to consume the things we do, and what makes them appealing to us.

I liked Notley’s work before I heard her read because I was reading her poems in my head the way that I thought they should be read, and when I did hear her read the reading did not match up with or exceed my expectations and my preconceived notions of what a Notley poem sounded like. Which kind of makes the work even more intriguing, even if I found the performance to be lacking. Performance is just one aspect of a poem’s poetry. I think it’s an important one, but not all poetry is this way.

I was planning on this post to just be a snippet, but it feels longer than that now, so let’s call this ‘craft notes.’

What makes a boring poem boring? The question isn’t if it’s good or bad, but if it’s boring. Less of a judgment and more of an opinion. Anything that can be consumed can and should be qualified, even if that qualification is personal and not widely shared by others. My boring is your ‘fuck yes.’ Your boring is my favorite Smashing Pumpkins album. Whatever.


  1. Mike Crossley

      This question seems impossible to answer and more rhetorical than anything else. Maybe a more apt dissection might be list the various contemporary “schools of poetry” and point out aspects that could be considered boring or exciting and see if there is any cross-matching, and attempt to understand why this or that is considered boring or exciting.

      But that might be difficult because no one wants to put themselves at risk. Which is why I think most poetry is boring, because everyone is worried about their “jobs”. For real though…. poets not wanting to say this or that because they don’t want to be blacklisted? Jobs? The fuck? Not that poetry is not or cannot be considered a job, but to have such a fear surrounding you will ultimately affect your work.

  2. deadgod

      Than picking out what characterizes ‘boring’ poetry readings generically, it might be easier to pick out what one finds interesting, exciting, intriguing, fascinating, or however else one antonymizes boredom.

      What holds your attention at a poetry reading? And of the answers to that, what produces a lasting attachment to the poems-as-heard (and perhaps to the poems as read to oneself)?

      It might be that a polythetic response is the only practical way to go: a list of things about readings that aren’t boring, the elements of which don’t seem to have a single cohering aspect, which list would be opposite to a list of ‘boring’ characteristics. If there’s enough indicators from the list of boring aspects, and they’re boring enough, then the reading falls into the red zone of “boring”.

  3. deadgod

      It does sound like Notley, at that reading, might’ve droned undramatically in a way that flattened the burrs of humor or compassion or whatever that might’ve entertained or at least interested the older woman and Naughton in reading the same poems off a page for themselves.

      A credible threat or a hilarious joke or a love declaration can be made dull and tedious in performance, regardless of the intrinsic intrigue they might hold semantically for a particular listener.

      This seems almost tautological to me: dissatisfaction with a poetry reading is dissatisfaction with the performance of the poems (at least potentially distinct from dissatisfaction with those same poems as they live on a page).

  4. Mike Crossley

      That is a great point deadgod. The poetry of the page can be very different from the poetry of the aural, of the physical. Though I tend to find the best poetry on the page evokes the poetry of the aural. What Frost called “sentence sounds”, or what Susan B.A. Somers-Willett once posited — that learning to read your poems aloud and change that which you know does not sit right in the poetic gut of oneself, or one’s artistic voice, is a scary endeavor.

      I think a lot of poetry is taught from the page-point instead of the original notion of the vocal experience. The print-press and writing toward memory (meaning writing knowing that what you have written will be able to be read and re-read) is still a relatively new event.

  5. Dip Noodle

      Alice Notley is a legend, and great great poet. It would be an honor to have the privilege to lose myself in her performing presence. What makes poetry boring; the lack of novelty multiplied by the time dependent wave of attention deficit and abundance.

  6. A D Jameson

      All the words.

  7. mimi

      being read to is always potentially problematic

  8. deadgod

      The real work is done by the spaces between the words.

  9. Dip Noodle

      not if you are on a comfy clean carpet being read to by a sweet person rocking in a rocking chair by a fire with a bottle of wine

  10. mimi

      especially if you are on a comfy clean carpet being read to by a sweet person rocking in a rocking chair by a fire with a bottle of wine

  11. Adam


  12. Adam

      readings make poetry boring, especially the boring people who like readings

      (this may apply only to MFA-style, upper-class white people poetry readings)

      most poetry since typewriters lives on the page, and just doesn’t have any life at all read out loud to me. it’s out of its environment, like a panda in a zoo. if you can’t recite your poem (almost) from memory, then it’s boring out loud. if your poetry is dense with metaphor, relies heavily on line-breaks, breaks the rules of grammar or has a high latinate word count, forget it.

      if you don’t look up from the page at all, I feel like you’re not even in this room.

      almost every poetry reading I’ve been to, I wished they’d given me a hand-out with the poem on it instead. then no one would have to read it out loud, we could all read silently to ourselves, we wouldn’t know when everyone was done and we’d end up sitting in silence, thinking individually about the poem together. the poet could stand up, smile, say thank you and sit down. this would be a more meaningful poetry experience to me.

      the only time I’ve 100% enjoyed a poetry reading, @ my undergrad we got scored real legit people (Mark Doty was pretty OK out loud) but only Annie Finch felt worthwhile. She may not have even had a piece of paper, and she turned off the microphone. She stood up at the podium, smiled, and then in this booming voice goes, “RING. RING. RING.” and looks everyone in the eyes. recited all her poems from memory, and she actually uses rhythm and rhyme, so it lent itself to sound. even though her poems could be a little cheesey and new-age-y (and there may have been a terrible “sound poem”), I didn’t care because I enjoyed myself.

  13. Dip Noodle

      ugh, then it is you who are the boring one! and not the conditions you find yourself in! there, it is settled.

  14. Mike Crossley

      Word up.

  15. deadgod

      Mishandle the spaces between the words, and that’ll happen.

  16. mimi

      deaders can you think up a reply for me to give to Dip Noodle please
      i hven’t been able to come up with anything good
      just this once, please do my this favor?
      i promise i won’t ask again

      : )

  17. deadgod

      great clue solution

  18. mimi

      Professor Dip Noodle (drunk, barfy from too much wine, rocking, carpet fumes and bad poetry-reading) in the Nursery with the Fire Poker

  19. Poet Voice & The Flock Mentality: Why Poets Need To Think For Themselves

      […] are so, so many incredible poets who get up to read and all of a sudden their poetry’s power is simply reduced because of their delivery. After countless readings, we ask ourselves why did she put on that […]

  20. Poet Voice & Flock Mentality: Poets Need To Think For Themselves

      […] are so many incredible poets who get up to read and all of a sudden the poetry’s power is simply reduced because of their delivery. After countless readings, we ask ourselves why did she put on that […]

  21. LiteraryCircus

      Readings by academic poets are almost always boring. I’ve sat through scores of them, and spoke up at a few. Those who write that style generally have no performance skills whatsoever. (Unlike open mic poets, who realize that poetry has always been an oral art– the hooks of rhyme and rhythm and pure euphonious joy in language, of playing with words, being what the art is about.)
      The audience at an academic reading takes it because the experience isn’t supposed to be entertaining. It’s more like a church service, in which they’re paying reverence to their particular god. It’s comical to watch, the rapt attention everyone has, eyes blank, everyone there knowing it’s as boring as the eternity of hell but being too compliant, too complacent, too obedient, too indoctrinated by the status quo to speak up. The outrage when someone DOES speak up (the honest woman akin to the boy in Hans Andersen’s famous tale) is because the audience can only feel outrage. Someone has removed the veil of pretense.
      The right model is the Bard himself, that semi-literate actor who knew poetry is to be spoken, it’s to be performed, it’s to be dramatized with sudden highs and lows and surprises, it’s a matter of voice, a quiet tone one moment and a shout the next. That’s what I want to hear when I’m in an audience. I want to see joy in performing, energy, outrage– SOMETHING– to be somewhere other than before a silent fireplace with Fluffy the cat.
      The general public equates “literature” with “boredom.” The Alice Notleys of the world and a legion like her are at fault.

  22. Adam

      Yes! Church service, exactly — now that you say so it brings to mind so many feelings of, idk, absurdity at Catholic mass as a twelve yro

      I love the disdain “real poetry” has for “spoken word” poetry! We think it’s so cheesy just because it’s enthusiastic. I heard a Schopenhauer thing recently, something about how only naive art can be great art.

      Look for Annie Finch readings if you’re looking for “SOMETHING” (for all the lip service I’m paying to naivete and enthusiasm, it’s more in my nature to be cynical and self-conscious, I could never do what she does.) Her poems written down manage to break academic molds, too. I think only “My Raptor” gets anthologized widely, and it’s awesome

  23. shaun gannon

      Boring poetry happens when people don’t bother attempting, or at least don’t succeed, at doing anything interesting in a poem, and I suspect this happens because the author is stuck in his/her own head, so pleased with what is going onto the page (or, just pleased with the act/idea of putting things down on the page) that they have lost the distance required to recognize crap. That doesn’t mean they think it’s all sheer brilliance – the editorial sector of the mind may just be shut off, with no regard towards quality entering the process. This is probably where most flavors of shitty poetry comes from – the boring, the self-centered, the redundant, etc…

  24. LiteraryCircus

      The problem is poetry in a cloister. Boredom is a symptom of the deeper problem of “literature” putting itself out of touch with the general populace. As if by design, it’s no longer part of the authentic cultural stream. In the world of establishment poetry, the designated poets live in an insular space. They talk to one another– not to the mass of people outside their world.
      But if poetry isn’t the authentic cultural expression of a people, as it was in Homer’s or Shakespeare’s time, it’s nothing. By its nature it should be accessible and meaningful to all.
      A good illustration of the deeper problem is given by the excerpt of an essay by Frank Guan which the folks at n+1 are this minute tweeting out. The essay reads like a doctoral thesis. No one not involved in that particular little circle jerk in Brooklyn would read it for two minutes. The writer makes no attempt to connect with the public which poetry– real poetry–should be aimed at.
      The excerpt, which that journal is so strangely proud of, could be used as a textbook example of how to bore readers, with long paragraphs filled with overwrought sentences clotted with obscure references, name dropping, and jargon.
      Some of us are constructing a “pop lit” alternative which draws on more populist styles of fiction and poetry. It’s the only way literature has out of the corner in which it’s trapped itself.
      p.s. Thanks for the tip about Annie Finch. I’ll look into her and her work.