Feature Articles

MICROPHONE by Vona Groarke

(November / December 2002)

It happens almost every time I give a reading of my poems.Within ten words, there’s a flurry from the floor and someone darts up from the back to yank the mic down a foot or two, or to signal for a podium for me. It’s hard to keep talking when a man is kneeling in front of you to fidget with your ‘levels’, so I stand there in silence, stranded between my few lost words and the ones to come, already backing up.

It never bothered Daniel O’Connell. At his monster rallies, the words he spoke were amplified by waves of listeners, who picked them up and passed them on to anyone out of range. By the time the message had reached the back of the crowd, it had already included his audience in a very physical way. Listeners became transmitters, and though he was, quite literally, putting words in their mouths, the absence of technology meant that his audience had immediate ownership of the message.

Communication technology ensured that much greater audiences were accessible to the ideologue or the politician, but it also re-defined the relationship between source and audience. Now there was, in technical terms, a transmitter and a receiver. The fact that one was active and the other passive meant that politics was more likely to have more to do with consumption than participation.

The microphone was rhetoric’s best friend. It allowed the audience to hear the words at almost the moment they were spoken, so the speaker didn’t have to stop mid-flow for the audience to catch up. The demagogue had greater freedom to dramatise his speech because it was now less a matter of individual, repeatable sentences than of a climactic and clinching performance. He could accommodate nuance or even quietness to dramatic effect, or he could whip his audience up into an uninterruptible frenzy.

The microphone confirmed the authority of the speaker and conferred on his words an unchallengeable, unimpeachable air of truth. Imagine somebody turns off Hitler’s mic at Nuremberg, mid-speech. He becomes a cartoon figure: a clockwork model working itself up to a bizarre arabesque of hands and eyebrows and wildly waving arms. His words seep away from him and are lost in darkness and silence. The crowd sees something ridiculous, laughs a little, then gradually turns for home.

But if the microphone initially amplified sound, it also flattened it out. As radio heightened the illusion of intimacy between speaker and audience, public address became more conversational and relaxed. In poetry, styles of delivery changed too. Compare, for example, the sonorous importance of a Tennyson or a Yeats recording with the contemporary poet’s ‘I’m just an ordinary Joe.’ Subject matter too has come closer to home: if you have to shout, you’d better shout about something important, but you can whisper nothings and still sound pretty sweet.

The portable mic of the nineteen-fifties meant everyone could have their say. If the technology could be moved from place to place, then its viewpoint was no longer fixed, and it could be used to transmit various, and sometimes conflicting, stories. Democratisation of the medium meant opportunities for greater collective power, and social reform was often a simple matter of new voices speaking up for themselves and insisting on being heard.

Cue Roger Daltrey, Iggy Pop and punk. Where Pat Boone and even Elvis had kept a respectful distance, a new music hell-bent on iconoclasm dragged the mic through a whole new gritty world. It got poked down too many trouser fronts, turfed at too many audiences and bashed off too many instruments, to ever feel the same about itself again.

Like a disgraced dictator, the mic is now a humbled entity. Shrinking in size and visual importance, it tries to hide itself behind lapels and buttonholes. Only in its crudest form does it really raise its head, among bingo halls, street preachers, and poetry readings.

Is there anything scarier than an open mic poetry reading?, Matt Groening had a cartoon youngster ask his cartoon dad. I know what he means. Usually such events involve a large number of people who wish to read their own poems to an attentive audience, and to leave immediately afterwards so they don’t have to hear anyone else’s. I’ve seen organisers have to physically wrench the mic from the fists of rhymesters who want to read ‘just four more poems now and the first one’s pretty short.’ Everyone there usually hopes the audience will nestle a foul-mouthed heckler, or maybe just a crazy guy who’ll interrupt the next earnest little poem about Bosnia or the Ice Age with a glimpse of his backside.

The best Michael Hartnett story I’ve heard has him give a reading in America, in which he mistook the lamp and stand of an overhead projector for a desk and microphone. Not only was he completely inaudible, but because of his height, completely invisible too. After five poems read into the bulb of the projector, the audience started giggling and Michael emerged with a ‘What the fuck’s up with ye lot?’

Some punters would flick that round and call it Performance Poetry. My husband, Conor, says that the only difference between performance and ordinary poets in Ireland is that the first lot take the microphone off the stand. Not that we’ve much performance poetry in Ireland – strange for a country so proud of its oral tradition. An innocent visitor from New York once asked me: ‘Where are the best performance poetry venues in Dublin?’

He comes from a city where poets must be able to juggle, play saxophone and make an omelette while reciting poems comprised entirely of the letter ‘t’. So I suppose the idea of a nervous adventurer standing up in front of a small crowd to read a few of their own poems from a book must seem bizarre. But then again, there’s always the tussle between the poet and the sound system to look forward to, and the off-chance that the mic might actually win, and the poet be stranded forever, somewhere between ‘Hello’ and ‘Now, can you hear me at the back?’

Vona Groarke’s Flight (Gallery Books) was short listed for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2002.

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