My, What Sharp Ears You Have!

by Dana Luther

Originally published on “Writers-on-Line,” a web site, in July and August 1998, based on transcripts of a phone interview.

Did the fact that April was National Poetry Month escape you? If you knew and paid attention, you might have received a number of conflicting messages from the media, none of which painted a clear or realistic impression of what poetry is and how it functions in current culture. Either there's not a lot out there you'd want to read because it's all of a type, or there's a lot out there you'd like to read but can't understand, or there's a sudden resurgence of both poetry texts and public poetry readings.

All are barely more than half-truths. Charles Bernstein, editor of Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, is quick to dispel the many fairy tales the public is told about the definitions and functions of poetry.  Active in multiple poetry performance arenas, with twenty books of poetry to his credit, Bernstein is David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters in the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program. He is one of the originators, and Executive Editor, of The Electronic Poetry Center, as well as host and co-producer of the LINEbreak Poetry Radio series, available in RealAudio.

Close Listening is the first critical volume exclusively devoted to exploring the practice of poetry as performance art. In forms that make them creative works themselves, seventeen essays by poets and poet-scholars address the acoustic and visual aspects that make performance poetry significant. They effectively enrich the ways performance poets and their audiences can "attune" to the sounded and visualized word.

To venture into Close Listenings is to quickly revise such questions as, "If you want to read in public, what kind of skills and material make the process fulfilling?” From the book’s perspective, this is the wrong question. It would be better to ask, “What makes a good audience in order to get the most out of literary performance, and how can performers and listeners better attend to the work?” The burden shifts to the listener, and the definition of  “poem” is allowed to drop its expected association with text.

Close Listening is oddly revolutionary;  it's tempting to ask why such a collection hasn't been published before. In an interview, Bernstein offered clear opinions about media perceptions of poetry, as well as about the significance of poetry readings and the concept of "good" and "bad" craft. He also had advice for poet-performers.

DANA LUTHER: Why do mainstream media neglect poetry? For instance, why wasn't there much about National Poetry Month?

CHARLES BERNSTEIN: The whole issue of having a National Poetry Month is itself an indication of a problem. A lot of the promotions around national poetry month tend to be feature and “soft” stories, human interest stories which I think have little to do with the activity of writing and reading poetry for those most involved with it. These promotions don’t really promote an active and sustained engagement with poetry.

What could change that?

Ultimately, poetry at its most vital can’t rely upon national media attention or wait for a response that is simply not likely to happen, given that poetry's not a commercial proposition. The alternative is what’s been going on for some time, which is the organization of poetry readings by poets and editors, publication of the work by small and independent presses and magazines, resourceful distribution systems like Small Press Distribution, a network of committed independent book sellers, and the exchange of information between and among poets and readers in self-sustaining communities.

How can technology boost the exchange?

Right now the internet provides a very important tool for distribution, not simply  distribution of the work, though that’s an attractive aspect of it -- that you can read material and also hear sound online -- but also for the promotion of books, magazines and reading series. The potential of electronic mailing lists of people nationally who might want to hear about a book that you like or that you've published is enormously useful.

Poetry tends toward the least line of resistance. That is to say, poetry is very responsive to technology because in the economic (or anti-economic) spectrum in which we work, one is always looking for ways to do it at the least cost with the maximum exchange. In the 60’s and 70’s, mimeo, photocopy and side-staple publications abounded. At the present time the cheapest way to disseminate work is through electronic distribution and poetry readings. A lot of the poetry on the web is better, certainly comparably better, than work in the other arts because poets are putting up their work somewhat more freely and comprehensively, or maybe you could say with more sense of necessity. In a way, these sites are better than many others because they’re not commercial. The sites are not about selling something else. They’re about what they’re providing -- ends in themselves

Is that why now is the time for Close Listening?

The value of a book like this is that is doesn’t attempt to do anything other than what a poem does: the impulse of these poet-scholars and scholar-critics is to extend their thinking about what they do, their obsession in life -- writing poetry and reading poetry. Their activity is not necessarily involved with evaluation, promotion or even explanation; it's an activity that's valued in and of itself and for the possibilities for exchange that it provides.

I think that to the extent this book is a product of its time, it has to do with a set of sometimes conflicting interests converging at this moment. It also has to do with a willingness to accept a range of open-ended exploration and investigation of poetics that are much less rigidly determined. That's something that poets of the last 20 years have been very insistent on – a more imaginative, open-ended style of creative essay writing, essay writing that isn’t completely expository, that isn’t completely rationalized.

Why is the notion of a "resurgence" of poetry readings misguided?

Close Listening  is, to a large extent, about poetry reading, but also the visual performance of poetry. I think the current resurgence of attention to poetry readings is great, but I would emphasize that poetry performances go back further than written forms of poetry. So we’re not talking about something new, but actually something very old. Nonetheless, within critical and scholarly approaches to poetry, there had been an idea that the written text was the gold standard of the poem -- it was the full embodiment of the poem -- and that performances were secondary, that they were illustrations.

The idea that poetry should be read out loud to be understood has never entirely gone out of favor. Many people think that we are now in a "heyday" for performance poetry, but that has partly to do with the kind of  “fuzzy” feature attention that poetry performances receive in newspapers. Generalized articles about performance poetry usually don’t talk about individual poets’ works or performances, but talk about a "social phenomenon."

You don’t have a discussion of a classical music concert by saying, “It was interesting -- all these people got up with their instruments and it’s a wonderful thing. They seem to gather every Friday night at Lincoln Center to hear each other play, and the audience claps and seems very enthusiastic. They’re playing things like violins . . .” Poetry readings are treated not so much as an art activity or an aesthetic activity, but primarily as a social activity.

What’s the major value of poetry performance, and how do readings differ from other literary genres?

Poetry operates on a small scale. Poetry readings are intimate occasions; they don't take place in stadiums. They don't have long runs. This intimacy of scale is poetry’s great value in this society, because it offers possibilities that are not available in mass-culture. Not that poetry's better than mass culture, not that it replaces it, but that it's different, and that the possibilities that it does offer are fundamental. To have a culture operate at its best, or even to operate functionally, we can't do without the possibilities poetry offers.

Poetry performance brings into concrete realization the dimension of language itself: the languageness of language, the wordness of language, the acoustic quality of language, that which exists only in and as language. It's a dimension in which the language, the sound, and the particular words in the particular order are not dispensable.

This indispensable quality, this feature of the medium of verbal language itself, is something that's a fundamental value for a culture that tends to treat these features as insignificant. This culture tends to think of language and its forms as being disposable in some way -- as we seek some truth in content, or some truth in message, or some truth in image, or some truth in the meaning understood as being separable from the way in which the meaning is created. Poetry puts us back in touch with the ways in which meaning is generated and the musicality, the aesthetic pleasure, of this medium. It considers language as having primary value within this constrained context of the poem, of the poetry reading. I wouldn't call it a "moral" value, but I would say there's a political value to it, an ethical value.

How can poetry readings benefit the public audience?

A large part of the U.S. population reads. A very small part of those readers read poetry. People who are unfamiliar with reading poetry at all often are inclined to think that poetry is difficult, or incomprehensible, or  -- and I think this is the much more damaging assumption -- uninteresting. Not because they might not be interested in a poem, but perhaps when they look at the poem for the first time they have no information about how they are to read the poem differently from how they read an issue of Time Magazine or a popular novel.

People can easily go through their whole lives without any basic orientation to reading poetry. Poetry readings are particularly good crash courses in listening to poetry, because after being forced to sit through several readings, all of a sudden a lot of the ideas we are discussing will come to you on your own. But people reading the page often won't get beyond the poem, they won't read through the whole thing, they won't see what the shape is, or pick up on the value of the sound. Never having considered that sound had any value at all, they won't be used to listening or to reading out loud.

Unfortunately the way some of the promoters of poetry (around National Poetry Month) want to address this issue of readers' unfamiliarity with poetry is to promote and present poetry which is the most like the reading experiences that readers usually get from reading large circulation magazines, newspapers and popular novels. They present watered-down versions of the popular materials that the readers are familiar with, but are less interesting than those things. People may understand the poem, because this “diminished capacity” poem doesn’t require any reading resources that they are not using normally, but it likely to be less interesting than the mass culture items with which it is trying to compete.

What's interesting about poetry is the ways in which it's not like other forms of writing. I think in general, the whole conception of "accessibility" is misguided. Very often what's being presented is . . . something that's no longer interesting as poetry. It's the least like poetry that it can be, and then it loses the readers that are actually looking for that which is specific to poetry that isn't available elsewhere.

To offer anything less is valueless, because it merely looks like poem. So then what's the point? Is there something wrong with TV and movies, pop songs, non-fiction literature? The mass media has plenty of great and engaging works to offer. It would be as if, in order to attract people to read non-fiction literature, one presented it in light, free verse! Why would you want to read it that way? Let people read nonfiction as what it is, and poetry as what it is. They can't be conflated quite in the way as those who would promote "accessibility" as a kind of a ramp for the handicapped would want. Poetry is accessible, it is auditable, it can be heard. It just requires throwing yourself into it and becoming engaged with it as a complex, developed art form that's quite sophisticated.

If you think of poetry as a call-and-response form, are you asking people to help themselves develop a new kind of response?

Right, that's the whole idea of poetry in the late twentieth century. Poetry is an activity that allows us to interrogate language and meaning. What's interesting about it is that it's not popular culture, as such. It's certainly not mass media as such. Many people interpret that to mean, "it's better," or "it's elitist." But of course it's popular culture and mass culture that tend to be elitist, because they argue that only those things that get the biggest ratings are finally worthwhile. The things that have lesser ratings or lesser interest scale are valueless.

How does poetry performance differ from other literary genres?

People can and will get very excited about poetry at its most complex, at its most difficult, in ways that it's most unlike other kinds of reading because you can get kinds of language and acoustic experiences that you can't get in other modes of writing. It's those things that ultimately attract the die-hard poetry audience, which is very intense and very committed. That's really what poetry has to offer.

Without getting into too complex a way of explaining it, it has to do with improvisation. The poetry reading presents so many different kinds of significant experience that are often contradictory, that it makes it harder to think of a poem as a fixed, static thing with a limited series of features associated with it. The poetry reading introduces a number of additional elements that also shift over time, and may not even be consistent in the one performance.

In multiple performances of the poem, combined with the multiple dynamics of each performance (intonation, volume, timbre, the social environment in which the poem is being introduced, the non-verbal body language of the performer), and combined with the text of the poem, there are more elements than can actually be brought into a single rationalized description. The poem in this multi-version sense exceeds any single scheme for understanding what it means or what it is.

Would you explain your term, "animalady"?

The "animalady" of poetry is the sensorial, bodily dimension, the way in which language is exchanged in terms of the acoustic. The actual physical sound of the exchange is related to meaning. The meaning is not something that exists in an idealized way that doesn't have to do with the bodies that produce it and the bodies that hear it. This is a limitation: so my "malady" has to do with our “condition,”  the limitation that we're inside. We can't get outside of it; though we can idealize language to imagine it has meanings that exist outside these physical boundaries. Of course, much contemporary  philosophy will also criticize the idea that there are transcendental meanings, but in doing that, such philosophy often doesn't fully recognize the significance of the media that we use for poetry: the visual representation of the language and the acoustic sound of the language.

In your Introduction, you speak of  "the poetry reading as a public tuning." By this do you mean a sounding board for the continuous evolution of a work?

Right. I meant that in one sense in a technical way. When you think about a poem existing in a primary way in a reading, in a performance, as opposed to on the page, then certain kinds of prosodic and rhythmic possibilities, timbre and intonation, present themselves which are not possible on the page. You can shift or keep constant how fast you read, vary the quality of your voice. So one way in which the work actually comes into tune, so that people can hear what these performative patterns might be, is in the poetry reading. When people hear a poet read, they become attuned to the kinds of sounds that that person is producing, which may not be apparent in the printed text of the poem.

Performance affords the poet the opportunity to tune herself or himself up, to hear how her or his work may sound, just as musicians don’t just think about how something sounds, but try it out and often try it out in public, where they can improvise, get tuned in and up to create the sound that they want. So it’s a tuning both for the performer and for the reader.

And I also mean "tuning" to emphasize the improvisatory quality of poetry readings over and against the idea that a poem is a fixed, stable thing. You write the poem, and it may seem to become this absolutely immutable, static thing on a page. At a poetry performance nobody imagines it that way. Everybody reads their poems a little bit differently each time: the people who are present change the way you feel; or you hear the poem in a different way depending on your mood, the people you’re with, the physical space, and so on. So that mutability, and the improvisatory quality that underlies poetry performance, could be thought of as a tuning. Trying things out, exploring and in this way creating. So the process of tuning becomes what the activity of poetry is. The activity of poetry is not just producing these objects on a page, though that’s part of it of  course. But there is also this tuning in public before other people and with other people, which is a very different kind of exchange than print culture allows.

Are "success" and judgment irrelevant in a living process that isn't goal oriented? What makes a "good" or "bad" reading?

I think that there isn't a right way to read a poem, or a "better" or "worse" way to read a poem, any more than there's a "better" or "worse" way to write a poem. But the reading, the performance, is an extension of what the poem is, and vice-versa (the writing of the poem is an extension of what you're doing in the performance of it). Different poems will demand different kinds of vocalization, and in respect to the quality of poetry, very often poets dislike actors reading poems, because they read them too well. It's hard to explain why that is, but it's a common dislike.

What advice would you give poets who want to get involved in performance?

It's not only important to give poetry readings but also to organize poetry readings, to recognize that organizing a poetry reading series is as important as editing a magazine. Or for that matter, to review poetry readings as well as poetry books. Or review the way in which a person reads their work in the context of also reviewing a publication of their work. Don't leave out the performance dimension when you imagine what the work of a poet is in those contexts of criticism.

So,  yes, it’s important to take every opportunity you can to read your work out loud, to do performances of your work, not just once in a blue moon, but as a frequent part of your work as a poet. Just as you might seek to publish poems in a number of magazines, or publish many books, it's also good to have many chances to read.

Then, take those readings that you do as being as significant as the publication of the work in print media. That would mean, for example, rehearsing your work. Making a tape of your reading and listening back to it and possibly "scoring" the page with different ideas you have as you listen to it. You could be faster here, slower there, leave a pause here.

Also, listen to the tape of your reading in different situations. Not just where that's the only thing going on, but while you're washing the dishes or walking in the street, or exercising, or on the subway or a bus, so that you don't focus just on the poem from beginning to end, but hear it more as ambient sound. Then, so far as you can focus on the reading as ambient sound, pick up on dimensions of the performance that you wouldn't get if you were just focused on the main message of the poem.

So you think it's important to approach this as a continuous process rather than allowing yourself to get into a single habit of reading?

Right. Continue to rethink for each reading the way in which you read, and not to assume that the way you read once should be repeated. Try out different styles, different rhythms and so on, and don't assume that you automatically know how to read every kind of poem. Try out performance dynamics that might seem to be contrary to what the poem would lend itself to, to try to provide some tension or contrast. There's no direct system for reading a poem that was written on the page. In a performance, you're adding things. So you have to come to the same kinds of decisions that you make in writing the poem itself. You may think that you don't need to make those decisions because you're relying on certain habitual patterns of how people read or how things should be read. But you should try out several ways. Don't go with the first thing or what seems the most obvious to you.

Then, keep re-rehearsing and rethinking what the performance is and what the possibilities for your work are through your life as a poet. By performance, I don't mean a highly theatrical, loud, demonstrative reading at all. I think one of the things you realize when you listen to a tape and attend closely to how you read is that often the "chamber music" side of poetry is more intensely appealing than anything else. Often, being low-key has great value. You can read in a very introverted way and still have that work, if you intend it to be introverted. If your quietness is the result of nervousness, and never thinking it through, it doesn’t come off that well. But if it's actually an intense thing that you're articulating -- that has to do with the music of the work -- that can be just right.

When people come to poetry readings, they're not expecting to be at rock and roll concerts and can be put off by outrageous, over-the-top readings. So by "performance," I don't mean revving up. Often you can be more subtle.

Can this also persuade an audience to attend more to the language?

Yes, it may allow the audience to attend. Often poetry readings are a kind of sensory deprivation for people who are used to more theatrical kinds of performances. There's a sense of poetry reading as "poor theater." But a poor theater, low-tech performance is no less fully realized as a performance than a high-tech, multimedia performance. It's not something that is done because you can't do anything else; it's something that can be done because this is the sound you want to hear.

The more, of course, you rehearse and read, the more comfortable you are in the space of the poetry reading, the more you are able to play around, to improvise, and to understand that the reading's its own kind of space. When you're doing a poetry reading you can have almost the experience of being at home writing in a notebook. You're creating the sound as you go along. If you're not  too self-conscious about the script, you can’t focus on the actual work of producing the sound.

Also, try listening to other people reading. Pay attention to the different styles of readings. Listen to tapes of historical poetry readings and poetry readings that you would not be able to attend locally. Consider the possibilities and become immersed in the performance of poetry as much as you are in the reading of poetry on the page.