Rae Armantrout reading per Ron Silliman

Monday, November 22, 2004

Rae Armantrout read at Penn last week, and got one of those great audiences -- at least in terms of quality -- that Philly can offer up from time to time. In addition to all the usual suspects, Dan Bouchard arrived from his home in Red Sox Nation to give Chris McCreary competition in the shaved cranium category. It's all about competition here in the poetry marketplace. Armantrout read from Veil, her selected poems, Up to Speed, and a manuscript still in progress, tentatively titled Twizzle.

By "great audience," tho, I don't mean necessarily who was there, either in terms of quantity or notoriety, tho it was a good turn out on both those scores as well. What I mean, really, was an audience that can listen with enough attention & sympathy to the poet to laugh at the funny parts.

If there is a single thing that differentiates readings in major urban centers & those on most college campuses, that's it. The ability to laugh. So many audiences on campuses tend to sit & listen to poems as if they're at a funeral. This is true not just when there is a langpo who has a sense of humor -- Armantrout, Perelman, Watten & even Bernstein can be total crackups, tho no two of them are alike in their humor or anything else -- but even with poets, such as _____ _______ or ____ _____, whom one might call stand-up comics seeking the cred of a linebreak.

I always take that as a sign that the listeners in a campus setting -- most of whom will be students -- are in some fashion intimidated by the poem. Or maybe not by the poem so much as by the fact of poetry. Either way, the result is a hierarchical relationship between the poet & the listener, even if the former doesn't intend it as such.*

This has all sorts of consequences, of course. One of the reasons that Allen Ginsberg -- who was about 90 percent satiric poet, 10 percent lyric one -- got treated as the Great Oracle (to the irritation of Jack Spicer & no doubt others as well) -- has a lot to do with that. He may have let the students in Prague crown him King of the May, but ultimately he spent a lot of time throughout his career defusing that defusing nonsense. At Naropa, he was the one who taught the classics, who felt that contemporary poets needed to know their Campion & Wyatt. In his readings -- the ten or so I saw during my lifetime -- he tended to foreground everything but the works on which the Ginsberg Guru edifice had been constructed, saving Howl for a closing or encore after many poems whose flatness & comic mode were not accidental.

So how, then, actually to hear the poet? I got an email Friday from Kevin Thurston wanting to know if, having heard a poet read, I tended to hear their physical voice as I read their words on the page in the future. Good question! There is no doubt that I hear Rae Armantrout when I read her words. Ditto for David Bromige, Bob Perelman, Bob Creeley, Robert Duncan, Harryette Mullen, Robert Grenier. Even, I daresay, for Olson, whom I never heard in person, but have heard on tape so often that his husky stage whisper comes immediately to mind the instant I confront his words. I can do an impression of Pound, trilling my rrrrs throughout the text.

Thurston had a further question that warrants a response: were there instances where I disagreed with how a poet read his or her own work? I recall Creeley recounting how stunned he was, on first hearing William Carlos Williams, realizing that the doctor did not voice his linebreaks when, for Creeley & so many other poets during the ensuing decades, that appeared to have been the very justification of those linebreaks. I also recall tracking a recording of Zukofsky once, noting that his characteristic mode was to pause after every second line break. And I've heard some of the Gnu Formalists complain that one reason pomos like myself think of their work as "tub thumping" is because we read it as verse, with voiced endstops, whereas they read these metrical rhymes as if they had been prose, muting that which seems otherwise foregrounded.

Well, I have seen poets mumble their way through a text so that nobody could make out what was going on and there is a southwestern poet who memorizes her works and declaims them aloud without recourse to printed page in a way that comes across as utterly pompous & silly. And there was Larry Eigner, whose speech had been compromised by cerebral palsy & was often unintelligible to first-time listeners, even with the text projected onto a screen.

So the range of what can happen is various. That is why what the audience brings to the reading is so very important, I think. The poem is not complete without the reader, existing only as potential, hidden in the pages of a closed book. So I was really pleased to be a part of an audience that could, literally, hear the humor in Rae Armantrout's work, responding more like an urban audience than a campus one. That, I thought, is just how it ought to be.