Thank you for waiting….
–Muriel Rukeyser (1979)
Early this spring, a friend from a city on another continent sent me a recording of a remarkable poetry reading. The theme of the evening was “poetry and protest.” Not very long into the event, a disagreement erupts: Is poetry an effective form of protest or not? And if not, shouldn’t everyone present at the reading simply leave, going out to join the protests occurring in and outside that city at the time of the reading? Words are exchanged and there is, I think—the recording is chaotic, people are talking over each other, it’s difficult to hear—a vote. It’s tense but the reading goes on.
It’s more or less commonplace—and very necessary—for poets and critics like me to want to think about how poems happen in the real world. Usually we do this by looking at poems. But what about the space of the poetry reading, what little globed off place in the social and historical world is that? Are there moments when—as above—the external world charges in, changes or challenges or even flat-out contests that space? At the Woodberry Poetry Room, I wondered if there were ways of hearing the poetry reading as porous, social and historical. I wanted to listen for waits, silences, halts, pauses, fire drills, missteps, mistakes, animals, altercations, brawls, technical difficulties, weather, interruptions, intrusions, etc.
One problem is that these moments are not cataloged—why would they be?—and although curator Christina Davis and curatorial assistant Mary Walker Graham were wonderful for suggestions and guidance, I left so much material unheard. I’m convinced there’s a wealth of weirdness in the Woodberry Poetry Room’s incredible archive. What I did hear: coughs, chairs, microphone noises, queries about sound, water glasses, water (was that the liquid?) pouring, all volumes and degrees of laughter, footsteps, doors, voices from the audience, birds, airplanes, latecomers, church-bells—sometimes, I think, the same bells I heard inside the Poetry Room—bad jokes, rustling papers and silence.
There’s richness in even this catalog of mundane noise: I waited through minutes of sneezes and scrapes before and after readings, I judged quantities and qualities of applause. I speculated about weather in this 1963 Morris Gray reading by Adrienne Rich, imagining my way from some very loud airplane noise to a stuffy winter lecture hall, windows cracked to let in the unseasonably warm air—until the poet says: “I think I might have brought this blizzard on today by writing a poem called ‘Snow.’” In a 2014 reading which Ariana Reines begins by asking the audience to introduce themselves individually, I heard the voices of a few real-life friends. “I’m so visually fatigued that I’m starved for the sound of people’s voices,” Reines says. I understood.
But the relationship between the poetry reading and its outside crystallizes as much in pre-and post-poem silences and waits as it does in noises and voices. In Charles Bernstein’s phrase, the space of the reading as a whole represents “infrastructure not spectacle.”  Silences, as John Cage emphasized, are never silent; silences and waits are charged with the encounter or even the conflict between the poet’s work or body, the audience or recording apparatus or room of the reading, and what’s beyond that—social structures, historical moments. Is it that the poem’s silence lets us hear these silences? I’m not trying to say that poetry itself “sharpens our attention” to these surrounding silences, or anything like that. In fact, I’m pretty much ignoring the poems themselves.
It’s not that the reading of a poem out loud isn’t important, not at all. But I wanted to consider the surrounding forces—the infrastructure of the reading and the way it sounds, or not, in the room—in their own right. These can be very loud in moments of silence. Here are three very different examples, presented with context but without too much commentary. Shot through with issues of poetics, politics, bodies and ability, gender, and race, these silences might speak for themselves.
I’ve never read anything about Robert Frost’s reading style, but the introductory preamble he gives in a 1960 Morris Gray reading seems like the sort of thing likely to have been described somewhere as “legendary.” Probably in front of a large audience (the man who introduces Frost begins by pronouncing that “anyone who thinks the humanities are in a sorry plight should be out there trying to get in”), Frost goes on a great length, talking about poetry and politics (this is just after Kennedy’s election), religion, generalization, himself. In this address, apparently extemporaneous, there are theories of literary study, of meaning and purpose, of “the purpose of purpose,” etc. After almost fifteen minutes, Frost supposes he will “shift to the poems”:
He has some difficulty finding the one he wants: “Oh gee, I’ve lost my place, haven’t I.” In the seconds of silence that follow, you can hear him turning pages at a more or less regular pace before beginning the poem “Revelation.” Certainly there is some element of vulnerability to his meander: after all, Frost is 86 years old here. But—thinking ahead to Frost’s 1961 inaugural reading—it’s hard not to feel an element of ambiguous power behind it, too.
In a 1979 reading at the Harvard Advocate, Muriel Rukeyser takes the microphone and says: “Thank you for waiting.” This statement is followed by a pause, 45 long seconds of muffled shuffles. It was unclear to me whether Rukeyser’s remark was apologetic or proleptic: did something happen before the reading that caused the audience to wait, I wondered? Was impatience—or relief, now that the reading was starting—audible in this last recorded silence? What filled this time: Rukeyser reaching for a glass of water, taking a sip, putting the glass down, taking off her glasses (did she wear glasses now, a year before her death?), finding a handkerchief, wiping the glasses, replacing the handkerchief?
In fact the reading as a whole is characterized by a general embarrassed haltingness. Kathleen Spivak gives an account:
A few years later I heard Muriel Rukeyser read at Harvard. Rukeyser was old and had suffered a couple of strokes. She had flown up to Boston but had to use a walker to reach the stage. Invited by the Harvard Advocate, she tottered onstage and, in a barely audible, trembling voice, read her magnificent strong poems. It was an incredible reading, a chance to see and hear one of the most outstanding American poets of our time. The students who ran the Harvard Advocate, the literary magazine, had on impulse invited Muriel Rukeyser, and she had agreed to come. But now they were overwhelmed with her care. Not one member of the Harvard English Department attended that reading. The students were left alone with the full responsibility for Miss Rukeyser, who was extremely ill. So did Harvard treat its women poets. 
At the Woodberry Poetry Room, I also heard an uncataloged 1940 studio recording outtake (part of the Packard Collection) of Rukeyser reading almost 40 years earlier. In the 1979 reading, her voice has aged strikingly, as voices tend to do. But even the silence of this reading is conditioned by the body, by a combination of age and gender that makes itself felt as a form of a waiting. This silence marks what the space of the reading was not made to accommodate: an aging, ill, female body. I want to think that you can hear the tension in it: the body that disturbs the space is what will make the poems that fill it.
Audre Lorde’s 1970 Fassett Studio Recording differs from the other two in that it isn’t a public reading but a studio recording session for the Poetry Room’s archive. Readings like these follow a prescribed format: usually the poet identifies him or herself and reads straight through a set of poems. There is little, if any, background noise. Unlike many of the other studio readers, however, Lorde introduces and prefaces her poems, giving the usual sort of contextualizing remarks, as if there were an audience present. Where not all but many of the other readers seem to accept the archive itself, an abstraction, as an auditor, Lorde’s remarks turn the abstraction into a problem: who is she addressing? She finishes her last poem, and because there’s been the question of the audience, there’s now the question of applause. Instead, a silence, which Lorde questions: “I guess that’s it.”
Is it, though? This final silence, a wait, contains the question of the archive’s future, and the question of the archive’s non-abstract future audience. What context might they need or want at any or all future moments of their listening, and who will supply it? Will there be a future audience for a black lesbian poet in an archive that is largely white and male?
There’s a lot more to say about this silence, but one thing for now. It turns out that May 15, 1970, is the date of the Jackson State Massacre, in which police opened fire on a group of students occupying a women’s dormitory at a predominantly black college in Jackson, Mississippi. They killed two young black men. The event occurred 11 days after the Kent State shootings; it is much less well known than that event. Because the shootings happened just after midnight on the 15th, it seems possible to me that Lorde could have known about them at the time of her reading that day—although this, like much of what there is to write about silence, is conjecture. Anthony Reed has very recently written of “the lived experience of blackness” as “the temporality of waiting, in that interval between optimism and resignation, for the announcement absolving of legal culpability those who perpetuate […] violence.” 
After Lorde finishes her poems, the silence is—at least—double. It’s the silent wait for the future audience inside the archive, and the wait for and silence of justice outside it.
 Charles Bernstein, introduction to Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 23.
 Kathleen Spivak, With Robert Lowell and his Circle: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz & Others (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2012), 106 – 107.
 Anthony Reed, “The Erotics of Mourning in Recent Experimental Black Poetry” (The Black Scholar 41:1): 31.