If you’ve attended online poetry events lately (which I hadn’t myself until covid drove me to it), you’ll have noticed how people often show their appreciation for a reading by using the chat to quote a line or two that they find particularly striking. Because I am who I am, and because my brain works the way it does (or doesn’t), I’ve found myself wondering how this form of audience response compares to those found at most live events, which range (depending on the sort of poetry) from polite clapping at the end of a reader’s set, to finger snapping at a particularly nice line, to actually calling out in appreciation .
The range of these live responses correlate roughly to how “formal” a reading is and how “literary” the work is considered to be. If the event is an award ceremony for fairly traditional poetry, you’ll probably just get polite clapping. If it’s in a bar, especially for more experimental stuff, you’re more likely to get responses in the neighbourhood of finger snapping. At a more performative, slam poetry style reading, you might get calling out or calling back.
In other words, the ways that audiences respond to poetry often signal where that poetry is positioned with respect to class and culture, even race and education, where, for example, the polite kinds of poetry that generally get reviews and win awards are also the kinds that get golf claps from the audience, and where those who produce this poetry have historically been more likely university educated, White, and affluent. There have certainly been exceptions to this, of course, and the demographics are certainly changing, but it remains true that there are real social and political distinctions implied in different kinds of poetry, distinctions that are signaled in various ways, including in how the audience is expected and willing to respond.
Which makes quoting poetry in the chat of online reading an interesting example of audience response, in that it draws elements from various kinds of live responses. On the one hand, it is silent, never interrupting the reading of the poet, which is a hallmark of audience response to traditional poetry. On the other hand, it’s a form of call back, even an extreme form, not just exclamation or encouragement, but entire lines called back to the author and the rest of the audience, which is far more like the kind of response you’d expect at a poetry slam.
So, how do we understand this mode of response? Is it expanding a more performative response to traditional poetry readings, forcing the poet to engage more with the audience? Is it literally silencing and marginalizing those kinds of responses, relegating them to the sidebar of the screen, leaving the poet’s speech uninterrupted? Obviously it’s at least some of both, and probably a whole range of other things too. In any case, I’m keeping my eye on the phenomenon. I’m interested to see what its long term effects might be.