Midnight at the Oasis: Performing Poetry inside the Spectacle
Errata: In the Keith Tuma essay, on page 158 of Volume 6, No. 1, the question about the nature and the composition of the audience should read "Who Listens?" not "Who Speaks?" The editors apologize for this error.
Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Edited by Charles Bernstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. 390. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
This past summer, I went up from London to Cambridge with friends to hear James Tate and John Ashbery read poems at Jesus College. This was a poetry reading competing with the finals of the World Cup, so I was not surprised to find a small audience of thirty or so, many of them poets themselves, some of them joking a little about the scheduling conflict in the way that one jokes about the inevitable with a proper groan. Of course all of these people are here for a reason, I thought, or rather a variety of reasons. These would include interest in and curiosity about the event and the desire to hear poems previously encountered on the page. Maybe some had heard one of the Americans read another time and wanted a chance to witness and hear another performance of familiar work. Tate had not been announced as part of the program so the fact of his poetry having recently acquired a British publisher is unimportant, but Ashbery's latest book was also just out and thus there was new work to be heard, though in some twenty years of poetry readings I have never heard this used as a reason for getting out to one. A sense of duty to poetry itself--that august art besieged by apathy--was also a factor, perhaps, if unexpressed, and for two or three in the room the need to honor old friendships or literary alliances.
Adding to the diffuse atmospherics of old stone and wood in the dimly lit room that overcast evening was a reading lamp atop the table up front, the sole source of non-natural and thereby nondwindling light. After a word or two by way of introduction from Kevin Nolan, it [End Page 153] occurred to Tate, at about the same moment it occurred to me, that he was destined to conduct this reading sitting down behind this lamp. "I'm used to reading standing up but I guess I'll just sit here," he said, or something like that, the awkwardness of this arrangement for him obvious. That awkwardness was produced by the configuration of a site which could only suggest cloistered or private, subvocal reading. Tate's momentary defeat in contemplating this setting became the primary content, the most lasting impression, of his reading as I sat in the back not quite able to see his face, just a little anxious for the main attraction to come on.
My mind wandered to memories of other readings. Just a few months earlier one of the British poets present in the room, Tom Raworth, had read at my own institution in Ohio to a much larger undergraduate crowd mostly required to attend. He'd begun with a poem called "University Days," which in its print incarnation has the words "this poem has been removed for further study" set in the lines of a narrow box, as if a museum placard. He'd ended with "Poem Poem," which consists of the slow and tinkling tones of a Parisian music box playing the punched out words of the title, the low tech music strangely eerie and beautiful moving out across the carpet--even while I knew it might have been motivated by a similar critique of the confining frames of the "poetic." Between "University Days" and "Poem Poem" there had been a long poem consisting of syntactically fragmented sentences of quotidian observation and proposition, read at a speed that helped the poem gather a force and affect that one undergraduate, noting also the poet's dress, accent, and slightly reddened complexion, tried to capture for me by saying, "Wow, he's really angry." Having read this poem and played his machine, Raworth quietly added that he found most poetry readings boring and left the podium.
Sitting there in Cambridge, then, I was remembering those words and thinking about better and worse poetry readings I'd been present for, trying to find some language to explain what accounted for the difference--for me anyway. Though there's more than a little the readings I've mentioned have in common, they were also worlds apart, the one cozy as an old chair, the other on the edge of bewilderment and confrontation. Ashbery's reading that evening--he like Tate obliged to sit behind the table--took on distinction and specificity for me about two-thirds of the way through when, while reading recent poems, the discursive profusion of the poems being uttered in a hushed monotone was counterpointed by the admission or accident--no way of speculating without having read the poems--of sudden pauses or silences of uneven duration mid-poem, as if the poet had somehow lost his place. The nature and effect of those pauses entered the semi-public discussion of the performance afterwards, as champagne was uncorked in an elegant study. Thus, for better or worse, they came to constitute the only critical account of the reading we are likely to have except for this one, which has been influenced by that same discussion.
I am now left to wonder: how can I write of all of this except anecdotally or impressionistically? Would it be possible or even desirable to develop and extend a critical vocabulary such that one might have a conversation about the performance or public reading of poetry? What would count as criteria? And how many of those criteria would involve matters not only beyond the text as ink and writing but also beyond the dimensions and purposes of the sounded word? How many of them would involve the nature or presentation of the performance site and the poet's alertness to its limits and ability either to resist or respond to these limits along with the expectations of the audience present? How many of them would involve only the company I was keeping? Would there be any way in which it would be possible to speak of the (visual) spectacle of these readings? How could I explain the experience of Jimmy Santiago Baca compounding a fumbling reading of a long poem he seemed bored to be reading with stories of meeting Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, stories transparently designed to impress undergraduates? How to compare that with the affect generated by the siren-tones of Leslie Scalapino's calm and mellifluous voice reading her poems' recursive probings of urban experience? What about Amiri Baraka beating on the podium and humming a few bars of "So [End Page 154] What" before launching a poem, or Frank Bidart's facial contortions while reading in a darkened theater's cone of light a poem inhabiting the persona of Nijinsky on the edge of madness? Is an eighty year old J. V. Cunningham prefacing each poem by announcing its metrical scheme really doing the same thing as cris cheek stalking the stage with hand-held speakers wafting Madagascarian music while uttering the memorized lines of a text echoing and subverting fragments of Robinson Crusoe?
In his introduction to Close Listening, Charles Bernstein argues,
In an age of spectacle and high drama, the anti-expressivist poetry reading stands out as an oasis of low technology that is among the least spectaclized events in our public culture. . . . In contrast to theater, where the visual spectacle creates a perceived distance separating viewers from viewed, the emphasis on sound in the poetry reading has the opposite effect--it physically connects the speaker and listener, moving to overcome the self-consciousness of the performance context. Indeed, the anti-expressivist mode of reading works to defeat the theatricality of the performance situation, to allow the listener to enter into a concave acoustic space rather than be pushed back from it. . . . [10-11]
An oasis is always welcome, though sometimes it proves to be mirage. Spectacle, in this usage, conjures Guy Debord's demons of mediatization and manipulation as Bernstein seeks both to defend the value and identify the essence of this medium and activity now ubiquitously present in and beyond academic culture, if rarely discussed.
The poetry reading, in its purest form, is of course "live." Liveness, as performance theorist Philip Auslander reminds us, assumes its value and meaning today against the possibility and existence of the recorded or re-presented--it makes no sense to speak of Greek theater as "live"--which would seem to suggest that, real oasis or only mirage, the desert remains in view at the poetry reading. This is one reason that discourse concerning poetry readings cannot elude politicized and moralized referents, even that deadly self-satisfaction and lilting uplift one fears most at the poetry reading itself. 1 Bernstein's poetry reading as oasis does not avoid such referents, distantly echoing critiques of mass culture from the past, though it is possible that what poetry readings need most is a discourse of unabashed pleasure, a defense of the activity as exactly entertaining. Bernstein cedes a lot of ground when he writes that readings are not required or able to compete "with music in terms of its acoustic complexity or rhythmic force, or with theatre in terms of spectacle" (11). The poetry reading looks for its successes elsewhere. What the performance of poetry has especially to offer, he argues, is intimacy, by which he means not the intimacy of a person confessing or speaking as person but the intimacy of aurality as it binds performer and audience, the intimacy of a non-theatrical "sounding of the writing." Not wanting to limit aurality in what some have called the era of "secondary orality," he writes that "Aurality precedes orality, just as language precedes speech. Aurality is connected to the body--what the mouth and tongue and vocal chords enact--not the presence of the poet. . . . The poetry reading enacts the poem not the poet" (13; author's emphasis). 2
His is, Bernstein admits, a formalist approach to the poetry reading, though he will acknowledge that the study of the social and institutional function of the poetry reading might also be expanded. His term "anti-expressivist" means to identify a specific mode of reading and performance that goes to the essence of the medium; Bernstein knows that other modes have been employed and continue to exist. As someone who once rang a tiny bell between sections of a long poem he performed for an audience consisting primarily of other "experimental" poets, he surely knows of (and is capable of satirizing) varieties of theatricality beyond the rotund vocal posturing which we associate with actors reading poems or the vocal gymnastics of Dylan Thomas. But because the essays he has collected hope not only to contribute to the [End Page 155] study of a neglected subject, poetry in and as performance, but also to "fundamentally transform" (4) our thinking about the sounding of poetry and "the contribution of sound to meaning" (5), his emphasis on the acoustic intimacies of the poetry reading seems appropriate.
Among the best essays in the volume are those offering critical frames allowing us to think once again, as we haven't thought for some time now in the wake of Jacques Derrida and others, about "sound as material, where sound is neither arbitrary nor secondary but constitutive" (4). Nudging the New Critics aside, but perhaps also remembering their attention to poetry, Bernstein's "close listening" invites discussion of matters such as the cognitive differences distinguishing speech and sound perception (Bernstein on Reuven Tsur); the distinction between listening and hearing (Jed Rasula); the legacies and limits of Roman Jakobson's and others' sound symbolism (Bernstein; Peter Middleton); the social and political possibilities and consequences of "noise" and the "emancipation of sound" (74) from pedestrian functionality (Bruce Andrews); the history of avant-gardists reading the "sheer physicality" (21) of poetry's voiced or technologically-assisted auralities and their extrasemantic, alogical force from within discourses as various as Hugo Ball's mysticism and Georges Bataille's "general economy" (Steve McCaffery). Close listening will also teach us, Bernstein writes, the limits of most prosodic systems, which involve their reliance on "context-independent ratios" unresponsive to "the intervallic irruption of acoustic elements not recuperable by monologic analysis"(13). The most extensive discussions of prosody in this book are Jed Rasula's and Marjorie Perloff's; the latter also takes the visual field of the book-page into account together with technologies of font and print. Such matters are more extensively and exclusively Johanna Drucker's subject in an essay called "Visual Performance of the Printed Text," which is generous in its sampling of avant-garde texts from Filippo Marinetti to Ana Hatherly.
The idea of a "theater" or "performance" of and on the page is one of those analogical extensions of "performance," like Judith Butler's use of the word with reference to identity, that Peter Middleton mentions elsewhere, just a little worried about the myriad ways in which the term is recently finding use. One position, evident in some of the essays here and certainly in the decision to include studies of a visual and book-bound poetry, would argue that it is simply impossible for any writer, no matter how monkish, to avoid issues of performance, as every edit and re-edit, every testing of the conventions and frames for presenting even bald text finds language "performing." Attention to the extralexical and extrasemantic aspects of writing and text as well as to the "incidentals of orality (pauses, tonal inflections to pARTs of words, stutters, tongue clicks, erms and ums, sputters and so forth)" 3 does distinguish an avant-garde tradition--the "mainstream" position more typically being that sound should be corralled for the purposes of expression, for emphasis and the underscoring of meaning. The page no less than the sounded word must negotiate what can be an ideologically tense and mobile line between focus and distraction, between what Auslander calls the "matrixed" and "non-matrixed" and what Bernstein, following Erving Goffman's frame analysis, writes of as "cued frame" and "disattend track" (5).
Perhaps the dominant framework in the academy for understanding what I will call in reductive shorthand the force of sound in poetry is still Julia Kristeva's post-Lacanian one, here resoundingly rejected for the developmental narrative encoded in its terms; her "presymbolic" is replaced with an "asymbolic" or "heterosymbolic." Bernstein's defense of poetry as performance has little use for pyschoanalysis and understands itself as materialist. It is the ability of particular modes of poetry (especially) to resist the "transparency effect" of familiar speech and writing and thereby to remind us of "our opaqueness to the transhuman world," our deafness to the "nonanimate" that he values (19). The contribution of the essays in this volume to the many questions raised by the sound and sounding of poetry strikes me as considerable, and the poets (most of the essayists are also poets) are able to hold their own against if not altogether trump more influential theorists. Jed Rasula's essay takes up Michel Foucault, [End Page 156] Roland Barthes, Bataille, Jakobson, and Garrett Stewart, for instance, affirming the need to reconsider "oral plenitude" at this point "several decades into the ontological readjustment sponsored by Derrida, purporting to wage holy war on logocentrism" (234).
Speculation and theorizing on the matter and consequences of material sound and human vocalization are far from the only point of interest in these essays, however. After sketching the technological developments that leave poets on one or the other side of the voice preserved in recording, Rasula lingers over the fascinating notations of Alexander Melville Bell, "author of some of the most influential manuals of oratory and elocution in the nineteenth century" (247). Peter Middleton's long essay ranges far beyond questions of sound symbolism and J. H. Prynne's important rejoinder to a literary criticism written under the sign of Ferdinand de Saussure and includes an abbreviated history of the contemporary poetry reading as it emerged from elocution movements and other public and educational practices. The interested reader might supplement this essay with another by Mark Morrisson detailing the importance of the public reading of poetry in Victorian pedagogical reform and the early British modernist period of London's Poetry Society and Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop. 4 Middleton is closest to offering a way into the paratextual elements of the poetry reading that I have somewhat provocatively linked with "spectacle" in my opening for his attention to a "reading space" which might involve "talk above the noise of drinkers returning from the bar" as well as "unplanned sound, material objects that insist upon other social purposes, obtrusive failures of attention" and so forth, and he is careful to note that "the contemporary poetry reading is an event deeply marked by the age of consumption" (270). No escape from the desert here, and indeed one might well wonder how it would even be possible to imagine one, given what Auslander, Walter Benjamin and others have taught us about the ability of newer technologies to refocus and reframe the objects (and modes) of our everyday perception. I also admire the thinking about intersubjectivity that leads Middleton to assert that "poetry readings foreground the ordinary processes whereby meanings are produced" (295) while arguing that,
Instead of thinking of the poem as something that moves around being variously interpreted, read aloud, published in different forms, and generally provoking distinct interpretations, we might be better to think of it as a large heteroclite entity, that mixes texts, people, performances, memories, and other possible affines, in a process that engages many people, perhaps only briefly, over a long period of time, whose outcomes are usually hard to see, and which has no clear boundaries, not the page, the reading, the critical study. 
The limits of space here are such that I won't attempt more than a cryptic summary of essays in this volume such as Susan Howe's autobiographical tour de force meditation on sound, memory, and identity; Susan Stewart's excursion into Gerard Manley Hopkins in advance and support of the proposition that "the sound of poetry is heard in the way a promise is heard" (46); Bob Perelman's musing on the "talk" as genre and the engagement with and reshaping of its conventions in writer-performers such as David Antin and Steve Benson; or Ron Silliman's polemic in "Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry Reading," an afterword aimed in part at "the ventriloquists of canonization" and insisting upon the need to recognize and find strategies for empowering real and specific readers, authors, and listeners in an era in which "the instrumental language of an absent subject" has become pervasive (361). Other essays include Nick Piombino's exploration of the effect of the "aural ellipsis" in poetry and the utility of D. W. Winnicott's concepts of the transitional object and "holding environment"; the poem might be a "potential space" insofar as "the effect of the 'aural ellipsis' in poetry allows that, at certain points, the poem may exist within an indeterminate site of significant verbal experience that is simultaneously physical and mental, objective and subjective, [End Page 157] heard aloud and read silently, emanating from a specific self yet also from a nonspecific site of identity, coming toward comprehensibility and disintegrating into incoherence" (54). Dennis Tedlock begins in Mayan poetry and ends in Emily Dickinson, reading and raising questions concerning the function of parallel syntactic forms, pairings of words and phrases and the use of complementary metonyms, arguing in the end for a poetics of an anti-systematic "polyphony and translatability." In reading his essay I was reminded of a remark Basil Bunting once made about Dante being superior to Shakespeare for the latter's insistence on casting several times at the same object, and I was left to ponder the absurd proposition (not Tedlock's own) that it made sense to call the Mayans postmodernist rather than modernist. Peter Quartermain's brief essay proposes in passing a continuity between the virtuoso reading of poetry by the actor Theodore Marcuse and the "pataphysical performances" of more recent and self-consciously avant-garde sound poets (219-220). Along the way toward concluding remarks on "the allure of the unsayable" he works to trouble ideas of good or bad reading as of "ideal" or "competent" speakers or listeners while not concealing his investment in a poetics of "coming-into-speech" which would embrace indeterminacy and error, stammering and stuttering. Poetry's life is on the edge of the unsayable, he thinks; we must also remain alert to disjunctions between subvocal and vocal readings; neither good nor bad reading is "wholly possible; either might bring us to the threshold of speech. Strength of vocables: to bind" (228).
I've set aside three essays which belong more consistently or exclusively to literary history, ethnography, or cultural studies. These are Lorenzo Thomas's "Neon Griot: The Functional Role of the Poetry Reading in the Black Arts Movement"; Maria Damon's "Was That 'Different,' 'Dissident' or 'Dissonant'? Poetry (n) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions"; and Susan Schultz's "Local Vocals: Hawai'i's Pidgin Literature, Performance, and Postcoloniality." The question raised or implicit in all three essays involves the nature or composition of the audience and thus might be dubbed, after the academic mantra Silliman alludes to in his anti-academic essay, "Who Speaks." All three essays also sit a little uneasily beside Bernstein's introductory discussion of the "social character" and social function of the poetry reading. The poetry reading, Bernstein suggests, is the site where the "audience of poetry consitutes and reconstitutes itself," where it "makes itself visible to itself" (22). Noting that much of the attention to readings in literary history and anecdote has focused on moments when readings provided "a means for poetry to cross over to a wider audience"--such as in the anti-war movement of the 1960s--Bernstein proposes that "the fundamental, social significance of the reading . . . has to do with infrastructure not spectacle" (22-23), which is to say that its social significance resides in its structure as an institution rather than its effects or consequences for an audience not already participating in the institution's life. Just as he is willing to acknowledge that there are more or less theatrical as well as "anti-expressivist" performance styles, Bernstein does acknowledge the value of other kinds of readings (those for a more general audience, for instance, or students), but the outline of his ideal reading describes something close to a workshop of adepts, "foundries" for "creation and exchange" (23) among poets.
This is meant to counter the banal complaint that the audience at some poetry readings is often largely other poets. But if Bernstein is right that readings demonstrate the extent to which poetry is a "socially responsive" and dialogic activity, "one of the most participatory forms in American cultural life" as he enthuses, and not "the activity of isolated individuals writing monological lyrics" (23), we might also do well to wonder to what extent a neo-avant-garde amply represented by the essayists in this volume is content with its audience and willing to subordinate other ends to aesthetic ones. "It is a measure of its significance that it is ignored" (23), Bernstein writes, referring to poetry and its performance both, one supposes, in mildly defiant tones that ultimately amount to special pleading--in these terms my unwritten novel also bears significance. Mark Morrisson's history of verse recitation in England early [End Page 158] in the century shows the extent to which, by comparison, Harold Monro and others surrounding him (such as Ezra Pound) "attempted to tap into the popular practice of verse recitation" as promoted by the Poetry Society in order to promote a modernist poetry. 5 Rejection of the "artificiality and visual spectacle of elocution" (32) were also common at the Poetry Society; far from being exclusive to an avant-garde, this was part of an effort to shape and legitimate poetry for the middle classes. Perhaps it is a measure of the security or even middle-class status of such a self-consciously avant-garde practice as the one Bernstein aligns with his ideal reading that the continuing production of poems and readings should be measured and taken as a sign of health rather than the effects or consequences of poetry in and on adjacent (or containing) institutions. It is revealing that there is no essay devoted to the academically-sponsored poetry reading in this book. 6
One might read Bernstein's ideal reading either as reflecting resignation or realism about the limits of the medium in a culture clustered in professional groups and hobbies splintering a mass united only by spectacle-blinding mediatization, but it's certain that, in the past just as today, such an ideal reading is far from the only reading. Lorenzo Thomas's essay on the poetry reading in the Black Arts Movement begins in the nineteenth century by discussing the multiple purposes and valences of dialect, and then remembers the self-consciously "low-brow" entertainment of the "poet-performer" movement of 1870-1930 (Will Carleton, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, James Whitcomb Riley, Vachel Lindsay). He notes that Langston Hughes, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, "understood what his audience wanted" (304), meaning by "audience" something other than the professionals and quasi-professionals alluded to in Bernstein's participatory democracy of writers. The purer space and functions imagined by Bernstein pertain less to the history of readings detailed here by Thomas as these involve form and function both. The community-building, political goals of readings by (or organized by) Amiri Baraka and others as part of the Black Arts Movement are closer to the purposes or effects of the Hawaiian poetry readings Susan Schultz discusses in her essay, which begins by admitting that, at first, she felt altogether outside the identity-gathering affirmations being performed and received at a reading she attended, prepared as she was to be "participating in an aesthetic drama" while "almost everyone else was participating in a social one" (343). Thomas's contextualism in identifying different and plural functions for the poetry reading is useful in refusing the nearly discrete categories and the less discreet, if more familiar, valuations implicit in Bernstein's defense of the reading as a medium. Thomas's judicious appraisal of the interaction of the poetry reading with other media is welcome too. He notes the unenthusiastic reception by jazz fans of Kenneth Rexroth's readings to jazz, and the more successful multimedia performance of Charles Mingus's A Modern Symposium of Poetry and Music (1960). He quotes approvingly another scholar arguing that, for Black Arts Movement artists habituated to if sometimes ambivalent about pulpit oratory, "poetry becomes theatre" when read aloud (310; my emphasis). Poets admitting their status as entertainers on the one hand and as community activists on the other; a willingness to compete with other media by inhabiting or hybridizing its forms--all of this seems crowded out of Bernstein's ideal.
No doubt this late in the century the economic success of the "poet-performers" mentioned above might well seem out of reach, though there is an economics of the contemporary poetry reading which goes largely undiscussed in this book, one with shapes and possibilities varying from location to location. (The English critic Andrew Duncan writes recently that "Today, a poet has to perform in public in order to have a career.") 7 Most curious about the discourse sustaining what one might call Bernstein's "poetry-reading-essentialism" is his comparative neglect of multimedia creations such as Mingus's or, more recently, Nathaniel Mackey's Strick (poetry and world music) as well as of the performances of poets such as Brian Catling or cris cheek who sometimes mix poetry reading and performance art. (Catling's performance of his text "Cyclops," he writes, "was structured to sound the building, to use its layers [End Page 159] to echo a contrast to the seated audience who faced a vast humming screen, the video projector behind it, impatiently itching the surface. A long lead ran from there through the basement rooms to a handheld video camera." 8 ) I am certain that Bernstein is aware of such hybrid, multimedia performances, including at the low tech end Tom Raworth's "Poem Poem," but it's hard to see how such phenomena wouldn't be demoted by a hierarchy of values in which a live, untheatrical, and unaccompanied "sounding" of poems is king. Bernstein does hope that proliferating recordings of readings will retune our ears for poetry, and few would disagree, but this is a different matter. What Bernstein is ultimately defending is not performance but poetry, it seems to me, though it is not as if--the entire book surely demonstrates this much--the two can be wholly separated. And his defense is not all that unconventional except insofar as it displaces the scriptural from its position of privilege.
Along some of the same lines sketched above, Maria Damon's provocative essay on poetry slams and open mic readings challenges some of the more "purist" and aestheticist judgments of Bernstein's introduction. Damon's own performance as the voice of progressive cultural studies obliged to reprimand avant-garde and mainstream poetry worlds alike for tacit or overt elitisms shows up just a little awkwardly in the phrase "But dis is de stuff I like," which is several times set off from the continuous type of scholarly paragraphs. This is the refrain as Damon briefly summarizes what it is about "traditional academic critics" (326) as well as avant-gardists and several varieties of left critics that explains their refusal to engage such poetries. Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler are "responding from a narrow conception of what poetry is: the highly crafted, aesthetic transmutation of private emotions into lapidary objects a select audience can, with much specialized training, learn to appreciate" (326). But experimentalists with very different ideas concerning the nature and status of poetry or poetry "appreciation" also believe that poetry reaching for a wider audience typically "suffers a diminution in subtlety and sophistication--the 'lowest common denominator' critique of mass culture theory" (326). The Right finds slams "too public" and aimed "too aggressively" at "mass appeal" (327). The Left finds them "not public enough," already compromised because of the perception or reality of poetry's purportedly eternal status as an elite art--or, after the Frankfurt School, a distraction from or illusory resolution of real and continuing social problems. The avant-garde might object to rhythms and idioms given to use in perpetuating the structures of oppression or vulnerable to co-optation by the regular or the nutty Right, and these would extend beyond textual matters to elements of performance where the theatrical and the charismatic emerge as anxiety-producing. The criteria for success among the slammers, Damon notes, include "a skilled congruence of content, performance, and performer" and "some kind of 'realness'--authenticity at the physical/sonic and metaphysical/emotional-intellectual-spritual levels" (328-329). She's right that visions of the "bullying theatricalism" and amateurish political rant of the slam poet, the pumping of Beat pastiche or some other beat borrowed from Audre Lorde or anybody else who's made it through the anthologies and out into the street, all of this amplified by body-language galore, are based in nothing more than stereotype or "superficial observation" (329). But, alas, I lack evidence--and, here, as elsewhere in the book, I'm not offered much by way of textual versionings of the performances discussed. Damon scores points with a riposte to those who would worry about one dimension of the slam's purported vulgarity, the practice of setting up and advertising the reading as a competition among poets. That's no worse, only more overt, than the competition for jobs, publications, and prestige among other networks of poets in and beyond the academy. True enough, I agreed, and the more subtle competition can be more dangerous, breeding manic networking and titanic powerblocks in all camps. However, a suspect practice cannot be justified only because it is less vicious than another suspect practice. If anything, the slam is more honest about the collapse of a viable evaluative criticism of poetry that would be able to reach carefully across the sometimes artificial divisions now long in place among poetry readers and [End Page 160] poets, among close listeners and those of my students trained by the movies to watch a poet's eyes first.
Damon's anecdotes and analysis should be enough to get us to listen more closely to slam poets and other populist poets, and that itself is quite an accomplishment. She is less convincing when she tries to link such poetries to oral poetries produced before the era of print and capitalism. It won't do to mention, via Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish tradition in place through the Rabinnic period in which "reading" is understood to mean public haranguing, or Gregory Nagy's studies of oral traditions and composition among the Greeks and others. The orality of the poets Damon is studying is on the other side of a technological divide, and one would have to begin (perhaps as Dennis Tedlock does) by showing what has survived and in what form. A study of the influence of the movies and of standup comedy in "live" and mediatized versions might have just as much to offer, but Damon is eager to hear voices otherwise excluded from the so-called public sphere, and she finds these at the slam: that is a large part of her motive. If the empowerment of marginal groups is really the evaluative criteria, we must nevertheless take her at her word when she says "but dis is de stuff I like." I suppose that the idiom might be said to "perform" a solidarity--though my own response to the dynamics of this idiom is to read it uncomfortably against the racialized history of obsolete debates concerning highbrow/lowbrow.
Though I've picked a little at some of the essays in it, I want to stress how useful, timely, and generally excellent this collection of essays is. Just for its ability to reanimate the discussion of sound in poetry it might very well be the most important book on poetry published in some years. In its effort to open the study of poetry in and as performance it has a better chance than earlier, related books (listed in a useful bibliography), some of the most important of which (such as Stephen Vincent and Ellen Zweig's The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium on Language and Performance) haven't had the benefit of an imprint like Oxford. For that matter, an increased interest in performance studies and, in England, performance or live writing programs can't hurt either. What I miss here beyond the imaginary essays I've mentioned above on the culture and economics of the academic poetry reading and on poetry participating in established or newer multimedia versionings, is a critical language that would help me and others better discuss why I tend to prefer what I prefer, and why I'm right or not to have difficulty even in talking about some readings beside others.
But I don't miss it too much. To return to my opening examples, I'm certain that in Cambridge I much preferred Ashbery to Tate, but would find it hard if not impossible to say that what Tom Raworth did at my institution even bears comparison, though universities were involved in both cases. All three poets meet, perhaps on slightly more even ground, on the page, which is one of the (less often articulated) reasons the page has been and will probably remain for some time the primary site of critical attention. Discussions of poetry in performance will be able to afford the luxury of anecdote for a while yet as scholarship moves on from here, and that does not seem to me a bad thing.
Bernstein's collection provides analysis that should help us at least begin to think more about kinds of readings and the formal and social factors to be considered in writing about or discussing them, and to his credit his own preferences are there for all to see. I will admit that I found these just a little surprising, given the strains of populism and theatricalism I've witnessed at some self-consciously avant-garde events, where I've heard others whisper that Bernstein himself is a frustrated standup comic. The wager of these essays is a very serious one indeed, to the extent that academic capital can be tossed in specific directions and impact the future of an art form. While it is possible, as the English critic Andrew Duncan has argued, that the study of poetry in performance, by scholars and practioners alike, will lead to a "performance academicism" (74) as well as to the devaluation of some good poets inattentive to performance and performance spaces, it is a risk that Bernstein seems prepared to take, if not [End Page 161] without the several cautions that I have outlined above. I'm left to wonder whether the reading in Cambridge, perhaps the product of a refusal to breed "performance academicism" as much as of plain old crusty tradition, might be close to the ideal that Bernstein identifies, and I'll admit that the possibility leaves me a little befuddled.
1. See Philip Auslander, "Liveness: Performance and the Anxiety of Simulation," in Elin Diamond, ed., Performance and Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1996), 196-213.
2. The term "secondary orality" is primarily associated with Walter Ong. For recent essays on the effects of technology on poetry, sound, and "orality," see Adalaide Morris, ed., Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustic Technologies (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1997).
3. Letter from cris cheek to the author, 1 April 1998.
4. See Mark Morrisson, "Performing the Pure Voice: Elocution, Verse Recitation, and Modernist Poetry in Prewar London," Modernism/Modernity 3 (September 1996): 25-50.
5. Ibid, 36.
6. One essay that begins a discussion of the economic function of poetry readings in the university is Hank Lazer, "Poetry Readings and the Contemporary Canon," in Opposing Poetries (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 47-54.
7. Andrew Duncan, "Born in the 1960s: Speculations on a new generation," Angel Exhaust 15 (autumn 1997), 74.
8. Brian Catling, "Cyclops," Language a Live 2 (1996): n. p.