1. Lower Your Standards
Don't take this the wrong way. But: All your life you've been taught that poetry is the most meaningful and super-serious thing that has ever happened to language, and while that's true in a sense, it gives us an impossible ideal. The point here is not that you should expect a poetry reading to be bad, or that you should accept poetry that's bad and act like it's good because you think you're supposed to. The point is to ask yourself: Are my expectations of What This Poetry Reading Means reasonable?
When you go see a band play, how good do you expect it to be? As good as Otis Redding at Monterey? As good as Insert Legendary Band's Legendary Performance Here? If you answered "yes" to either of those, you'll stop going to see bands pretty fast. It's OK — good, even — to listen to poetry that isn't in an anthology of the Best Poems Ever Deemed Great by Important People, just as it's OK to like an obscure band nobody's heard of just because you like the band for whatever personal, idiosyncratic reason.
2. Hold Your Applause
This isn't a hard and fast rule, but if you go to a reading on a college campus — and you should! — chances are this is an establishment writer, possibly a professor somewhere, and so the reading will operate under loosely defined academic poetry reading rules. At these readings, there is the odd custom of not applauding after each poem, but instead waiting until the poet has finished. This will probably feel unnatural — especially after a particularly good poem, when the reader will often just start introducing the next piece without giving you any time to relish what you just heard. I'm not sure how this tradition started, but I'm sure the British are to blame somehow. Just go with it. Armed with this knowledge, you will feel great satisfaction at not being the person who inadvertently claps after the first poem, only to feel the burning gaze of all eight people in attendance.
Of course, if you want to be an enjoyment rebel and just clap when you want to clap, then I'm not going to stop you. Don't snap your fingers, though. Nobody does that.
3. Go Ahead and Make a Polite Appreciative Noise
Even at academic readings, there is one socially permissible way to show your appreciation before the reader is done. There is a very particular sound you will hear poetry listening people make from time to time, one that is allowed as a signal of special appreciation. To execute it properly, your lips stay together, and you sort of make an "Mmm," but much lower than you would in other kinds of enthusiasm, such as biting into a delicious cookie or, well, you know.
Imagine you've been hit gently in the chest (by poetry) and enjoyed it. Your mouth acts as a silencer such that the sound emanates as much from your sternum as from your face. If your eyes are closed and you are shaking your head gently, this means you are feeling both appreciative and transported.
Here's the very good end of the very good poem "Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth" by Brian Barker (from this book), which he read as part of the Poetry Sucks! series at Dino's the other night:
I’ll dream we’re dancing in the kitchen one last time,
swaying, the window a waystation
of flaming leaves, the dogs shimmying
about our legs,
dragging their golden capes of rain . . .
O my critter, my thistle, gal-o-my-dreams,
lift your voice like an oar into the darkness,
for all the sad birds are falling down—
Nothing in this night is ours.
When this poem ended, someone made the sound. Nice job! Since poets like to save their best stuff for the very end of a poem, this can sometimes take the place of post-poem applause. But since Dino's is a bar, people clapped, too.
4. It's OK To Clap After Poems Sometimes
Just not at university readings, generally speaking. Bars, definitely. Bookstores ... could go either way. Speaking of bookstore readings please, if you haven't already, read "My Last Borders, or Poem Ending with a Homage to W. B. Yeats" by Baron Wormser. It contains helpful hints on how not to act at a poetry reading, among other things.
5. Enjoy Poems You Enjoy
This is really a coda to No. 1, but it's here because, for a lot of people, their standard for good poetry isn't just impossible, it's imaginary — "I remember Shakespeare being hard to understand when I was in high school, and I guess that's what good poetry is?" Read poems, listen to poems, enjoy the ones you enjoy, just like anything else. If a tweedy, pompous teacher ruined poetry for you, find some new stuff you like, preferably stuff that's been written in your lifetime.
Have you ever read "Dear Internal Revenue Service" by John Brehm? Please do. It's honest, self-deprecating and funny — like other things you like that aren't called poetry! Enjoy the rest of National Poetry Month. Hope to see you out there at a reading, and here's that Kate Daniels poem again. She's reading on Sunday at the Frist.