THE PAGE VERSUS THE STAGE 1 : CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN PERFORMANCE POETS

Martina Pfeiler, University of Dortmund, Germany


“The Pagers” : The Writing Poet

In the publishing world of cyberspace and hypertext it is not surprising that there are mil­­lions of pages written and read whose words have never been spoken or heard at all. In addition, the number of sound files of poetry keeps rising, and there are electronic poetry archives, such as the renowned Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo that contains an incredible collection of sound poetry and visual poetry. Moreover, there are radio and TV stations that broadcast poetry on the Internet, as well as video clips of performances that may be viewed online (e.g. http://www.e-poets.net).  
When characterizing the writing poet in her traditional media context, one needs to locate her in an interaction between the poem and the recipient. Since theoretical approaches to literature differ considerably, I will refer only to some basic yet important features. First, most poets use writing as a means of storing and ex­ploring written language. Even slam poets who want to stage their poems, need to write in what Amiri Baraka calls “longhand” (Packard 1987, 305) on the page; frequently the type-writer, or the computer is used. Second, the crucial difference between the “stager” and the “pager” is that the latter has no intention or choice of facing the audience in person, and sometimes not even through the published page. Third, just as the author becomes a fictional writer through the means of writing as well as through the dynamics of language in the text, the reader, too, can only be seen as a fictional reader that encounters the writer in a world of writing.

Poets whose primary intention is the exploration of the world and the self through writing have a tendency to write in a highly elaborate, often descriptive, abstract, contemplative, or self-reflective “literary” style. This idea is confirmed by James McCorkle in The Still Performance (McCorkle 1989), where he draws attention to the possibilities of an articulation of the self through writing and an exploration of the written language. Obviously, “the written form of language is not a simple transcript of its spoken form” (Hawthorn 1987, 62), but rather a written version of what can be put into speech.

Readers who have a well-trained auditory imagi­nation alongside a visual and cognitive imagination, experience poetry as a

[w]riting that seduces, persuades, argues, comforts, contradicts – [a] writing resembling speech but speech with impact: poetry can display all these tones in its register. It aims to throw a charge between two points: one, the subject, topic, piece of the world, and the other the reader’s responsive imagination: the space in the mind that responds to sound and image. It persuades, comforts, argues, finds a voice, makes use of rhythm, rhyme and forms of sound-quality with that imagination primarily in view. (Mills 1996, 70)

Poetry can display all these tones in its register only if they are created by the reader, and this does not only account for intonation, but also for rhythm, pitch, stress, duration, and vocal intensity. Thus reading a poem engages the recipient differently compared to listening to it. Reading is often seen as an activity as opposed to listening, which is arguably passive. One equally has to train one’s listening skills of poetry in order to be able to experience and respond to it, if not “coparticipate in its creation” (Nick Piombino 1998, 68). This response is equally a subjective one as a reading response, because “[t]he listener tends to ‘fill in’ or weave into any elliptical speech act his or her internal experience” (54).

 

“The Page-Stager” : The Writing and Reading Poet

With this category of poets I aim at referring to a large group of poets who are more or less equally engaged in writing their poems as well as reading them to an audience, but who do not, as Charles Bernstein puts it, under­stand the poem as a “performative event” (Bernstein 1998, 9). This refers not only to the way that the poet presents him- or herself to the audience, but also to a lower potential and degree of performative articulation of the poem.

As to the nature of poetry readings it is difficult to define what exactly happens at poetry readings which have institutionalized themselves in the cultural life of European and US societies. Peter Middleton sketches an ordinary reading by saying quite ironically:

A person stands alone in front of an audience, holding a text and speaking in an odd voice, too regular to be conversation, too intimate and too lacking in orotundity to be a speech or a lecture, too rough and personal to be theatre. (Middleton 1998, 262)

There are many poets who write poetry and need to have poetry readings in order to promote their books and foster their career. Established poets are often public celebrities and they enjoy reading their poems to an audience. When Peter Middleton characterizes the poet in the above situation, it seems to me that the oral articulation of the poem by the poet remains in a certain frame that does not transgress the idea of doing anything with the poem but read it out aloud. Even if the poet is a magnet for the audience, the poem itself would not be affected, which is to say that poetry readings may stage the poet but not the poem.

The New York Quarterly points out in the introduction to an interview with Allen Ginsberg that

[e]ach time a poet stands in front of an audience, there is an unconscious theatrical element which comes into play. And because of this theatrical element, poetry readings tend to spotlight the poet, not the poem. (NYQ Spring 1991/Nr.6, 2)

For example, Ezra Pound, who has made major postulations in the first decades of the twentieth century as regards language as a “means of communication” and “inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of speech” (Pound 1934, 63), “did not read his poems but his scholarship” (Hall 1991, 58). And bard Walt Whitman, grand father of the Beat Generation, according to David Hall, “lectured on Abraham Lincoln more often than he read ‘Lilacs’”(ibid.).

Today, just as in pre-print times, for many poets “readings have become the primary form of publications. Reading is a making-public, an utterance which is far more immediate than any other form” (Hall 1976, 189). One obvious reason for the growing number of readings, in particular since the early 1950s and Dylan Thomas, has been financial. Dylan Thomas, whose three American tours between 1950 and 1953, according to Brinnin, “were to bring to America a whole new conception of poetry readings”, too, claimed ostensibly that his motive for reading was simply financial; this may be true, but it sounds like an understatement regarding his talent that made it difficult for the listener “to know which gave greater pleasure, the music or the meaning” (Gentile 1989, 181).  Listening to Dylan Thomas, therefore, makes it difficult to distinguish between a read poem and a performed poem. On his American tours, Thomas performed his poems, even though he never seems to have had the pure intention of writing his poems in order to perform them. Yet, the oral realization of his poems had a high emphasis on the articulation of the sounds of his poems, even if, to him, reading/performing them was only one part (art) of his job as a poet.

Poets who were, or are, fairly equally engaged in writing and reading their poems, are Sylvia Plath, Robert Creeley, X.J. Kennedy, Galway Kinnell, Seamus Heaney, Robert Lowell, Donald Hall, Louise Glück, or e.e. cummings. Although these poets present their poems in a well-articulated way, which brings much of the meaning to the fore, or adds meaning in the total perception of the poem, their poems work also well for the silent recipient whose auditory imagination is well trained. This is, of course, not to say that the original voice of the poet, or of any other person who would orally interpret the poem, can be mentally constructed with the same sound quality. T.S. Eliot, who was an intensive public reader, had an interesting career, as Don Cusic points out:

As a “performer”, Eliot lacked the necessary dramatic skills to project his personality – or a facet of his personality – from the stage to an audience success for most of his life. Only in his final years, when he had become a public figure and realized that people came to see him as a celebrity and institution rather than a poet, critic, playwright, or anything else he had accomplished, was he effective from the stage. (Cusic 1991, 64)

A differentiation between an orally read and a performed poem can be made in terms of the artistic intention of “staging the page”, and, since this may be debatable, on a formal level. Yet, if one considers such motivation or in­ten­tion, those poets who fairly equally value writing a poem and reading it publicly could be called “page-stager”; those poets whose primary goal is to write for the stage – “stagers”. Therefore, poems heard from “page-stagers” may contain the same complex imagery, diction, self-reflective mode and all other features that are inherent to the poem of a writing poet; after all, this poet is a writing poet who makes his or her poems audibly available to the public, either in a live–reading or as a sound recording. Nevertheless, each poet’s career has its own dynamics; therefore individual styles in the composition of poems may vary considerably. In other words, not all poems that are not primarily “written-to-be-read” will reflect a highly analytic diction. Nevertheless, Altieri points out that “the custom of poetry readings has become very influential and has led away from complex meditative poetry to a more oral, communal style” (Altieri 1973, 605).

Once again, it should be stressed that it makes a considerable, though varying, difference whether a poem is heard or read be­­fore it enters the mind of the recipient – in particular on a sensual, psychological, and social level.

 

“The Stagers” : The Performing Poet

In his essay, “Preparing for Popularity: Origins of the Poet-Performer Movement”, Paul H. Gray points out two decisive forces that were responsible for the rise of the performer-movement in the second half of the nineteenth century in the United States.

First, he  attributes the creation of an audience (though predominantly a reading one) for poetry to a number of poets, among them Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Edgar Allan Poe as the most influential one whose poetry was recited and sold all over the country (cf. Gray 1986, 35). Among these poets, only Poe would have liked to have a performing career and yet, according to Paul H. Gray, he was “constitutionally incapable of mastering the organizational details that such a career required” (37).

All of the poets above can be seen as forerunners of the later performer-poets in terms of using every-day subject matter in many of their poems. Descriptions of rural and social life continued to be highly popular among the poet-performers James Whitcomb Riley, William Carleton, Vachel Lindsay, Robert Frost, and many others, who all set out as performing poets very early in their career (cf. Gray 1985, 36). The first poet to attract a national audience off the page was William Carleton from Detroit,  who  was very much in touch with people from all ranks, but especially with rural people in the neighboring towns. The public taste, it appears, asked for “Carleton’s creative energy of the unrelenting realism of his subject matter, such as divorce, financial failure, old age destitution” (5).

The second important factor that helped the poet-performer movement was “the development of a profitable system for delivering public entertainment to American cities across the continent” (34). If one thinks back to the last few decades of the nineteenth century, it becomes clear that at this time a system of transportation was only just being established to bring audience and performer together. As Peter Revell points out, “it was a period of phenomenal growth of railroad mileage, so that countless little towns and villages in far-scattered rural regions were linked to the great cities and with one another” (Revell 1970, 146).

Another influential person in the shaping of a performance-poetry-scene was, according to Gray, James Redpath, who opened the Boston Lyceum Bureau at 35 Bromfield Street (cf. Gray 1985, 39). This lyceum and many others, in particular in New York or Chicago, were used to book “comedians, elocutionists, public curiosities, and most significant for this study, poets who could delight audiences with their skills as performers” (Gray 1985, 40). No less a person than Ralph Waldo Emerson was managed by James Redpath. Gray stresses Redpath’s importance in helping the performer-movement develop by saying: “[h]is involvement with the lyceum movement […] had altered fundamentally the cultural life of the American middle class and paved the way for the poet-performer movement” (40).

Today, the organized reading, performing and performance of poems, which Donald Hall calls “poëbuisness” (Hall 1991, 64), is highly institu­tionalized in the United States.  Hall states that in 1976 there were more than one hundred and twenty-five centers that sponsored poetry readings. The centers included the Unites States Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh, up-town poetry centers in Manhattan, or coffee houses in Berkley. Especially city-readings, such as in New York City, LA., San Francisco or Detroit, thrive (cf. 61). Moreover, “[i]n New York City, according to the Times Book Review, ‘in a given month there might be over three hundred [readings] at seventy sites – ranging from churches, to bars, small halls or college auditoriums’” (62). Zoë Anglesey, the editor of the anthology of spoken word poetry, Listen Up!, too, points out an enormous interest of large cities in live poetry events.

Today, the poetry scene flourishes at New York open-mic spots like the Nuyorican Poets Café, Brooklyn’s YWCA Tea Party and Harlem’s Sugar Shack. Progeny of hip poets – the Beats of the 50s and protest poets of the 60s and 70s – these and up-coming literati cast their diverse spells of word beats inspiring young contemporaries in Cleveland, Ohio, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Atlanta; later branching out internationally to poetry circuit venues in Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Istanbul. (Anglesey, 1999)

Apart from a concentration of poetry readings and performances in urban environments, there are also small communities, as for example   Woodstock NY, where – traditionally – poetry has always played an important role. For example, poetry readings and performances take place every week at “The Colony Arts Café” (hosted by Phillip Levine),  as well as at “Joshua’s” (hosted by Shiv Mirabito). Both venues attract per­formance poets from within the community but also from all over New York State. Moreover, since the year 2001 the Woodstock Poetry Festival takes place each August, where internationally celebrated poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Billy Collins, Kate Barnes, Robert Kelly, and Anne Waldman, just to name a few, attract a large audience from all over the country (cf. http://www.woodstockpoetryfestival.com).

What these contemporary live poets can be credited with most is their high engagement in reclaiming poetry as spoken art that is fulfilled in a cultural context. As Garber points out:

The oral recovery involves a poetics deeply rooted in the powers of song and speech, breath and body, as brought forward across time by the living presence of poet-performers.  (Garber 1995, 53)

Historically, performing poets like William Carleton, James Whitcomb Riley, Carl Sandburg, or Vachel Lindsay were not only performing out of a deliberate decision. Although their time paved the way for what became a mass culture that needed  popular figures (cf. Cusic 1991, 11), it was rather that at the end of the nineteenth century people listened then, partly because they could not read, and even if they could, there were so few books. With the age of printing, with the advent of a reading populace, poetry ceased to be chanted, ceased to be read aloud for the most part  (Lowell 1971, 14).

What may be essential to note is that a poet-performer predominantly sees himself more as a performer who writes poetry than as a poet who performs, or at least as someone who is equally skilled in both ways. Cusic points out that James Whitcomb Riley, for example, “had always wanted to be a performer, playing for a short while with a medicine show, writing songs, playing his guitar, banjo and violin wherever he could […]” (Cusic 1991, 2). His poems spoke directly to the masses and appealed to them because of his many talents with which he performed his poems.

Later, in particular in the 1950s, with a revival of poetry readings, one of the main attractions of the poem was that it was spoken in an every-day-diction. In that respect, Mills points to the following:

[w]riting in dialect is one of the methods of drawing attention to the texture, and away from the abstractable meaning or message of a poem. Instead of the usual question: what does it mean? The preferred question should be: how does it speak? (Mills 1996, 68)

This question was pursued by the Beat poets who wanted to speak directly to the people. It is not so much the use of dialect, but other features linked to orality, such as use of repetitions, colloquialism, slang and idioms that were effective. The underlying aesthetics called for “participation far more than interpretation” (Altieri 1973, 605). Poets wanted to connect with people, and with the rise of the Beat movement there was a dramatic shift summarized by Donald Hall, who states that: American poets became “public lovers and private haters” (Hall 1976, 51).

As regards the use of traditional oral features by the Beat poets, Carl Thayler points out that he is skeptic about “claims by writers and critics of the movement’s debt to orality”. He expresses this skepticism by stressing that he doubts how “highly literate writers can participate in an oral tradition” (Thayler 1981, 101). The only poem which to him, on the sur­face at least, exhibits traditional oral features is “Howl”, which is rich in mnemonic devices, has its share of redundancy, is additive, situational rather than abstract, emphatic and participatory and close to the human life-world (cf. 101-102).

There is much evidence that a revived contemporary secondary orality culture has, for example, fueled the poems by the Beats and vice versa; just as new developments in performance poetry exhibit a continuation of an artistic oral and cultural spirit in a poetry of the twenty-first century in the United States.

 

“The On-Stager” : The Performance Poet

Since there are many different definitions of performance, I would like to point out Richard Poirier’s definition first, who states that performance “is an energy in motion, an energy which is its own shape […]” (Poirier 1971, xv). This energy is made up of sounds, body movements, gesticulations, eye-contact, visual images (e.g. of the setting, graphics, videos, as well as of the poem itself in the mind of the performer and as the audience), and feelings triggered off by the rhythm. Theoretically this energy is in motion until the performance is over; yet even long after the performance has ended, this energy sticks in the minds of the audience and the poet in form of memories. As Robin Murry states:

the only memory which one can preserve is that of the spectator’s more or less distracted perception, or the more or less coherent and concentrated system of its reprises and allusions. The work, once performed, disappears forever. (Murray quoted in Connor, 1992, 134-135)

Evidently, this phenomenon is based on the simple fact that there is a social gathering of people who watch – and often interact with – the poet in performance for a certain amount of time, until the poet stages a new poem or leaves the stage. This implies that the term performance may refer to a single performance of a piece or to the whole event. Jerome Hawthorn comments on the restricted time and space level of performance in which artists exert control over the audience by saying that performance artists “are limited by the constraints of an audience’s ability to be in one particular place for a certain length of time, and by other physical constraints” (Hawthorn 1987, 109). The same applies to the poetry reading and the performing of a poem. But, as restrictive as this may sound, there is much to gain out of poetry performance events with their multi-layered acoustic, visual and social dynamism triggered off by the presence of the poet. Moreover, it stresses the fact that the poet is physically, in particular vocally, challenged to present the performance piece that is judged in poetry slams by the audience. This asks from the poet decisively different skills than from a writing poet who does not physically stage the poem. For example, when the performance poet writes a poem he or she has to consider various performance aspects, as well as rehearse the piece before its performance. If the poet writes for a performance slam, the length of the poem must not exceed a certain time-limit of 3 minutes and 10 seconds. Moreover, the performance poet often needs to find an interesting sentence or two to introduce the poem. This may be a dedication, a serious introduction to the poem, or may even culminate in a spontaneous and funny rambling about circumstances in which the poem was written.

In this respect the poet transgresses a certain point in his or her arti­culation that moves from a loud reading of the poem to a highly expressive, performative articulation of the written piece. Apparently, the expressiveness of a poem in performance needs to match its content level.

Michael Carbon points out important characteristics of the expressive nature of perfor­mance art which equally account for all kinds of performance poetry, exhibiting:

a dense web of interconnections that exists between it and the many intel­lectual, cultural, and social concerns that are raised by almost any contemporary per­­formance project. Among them are what it means to be post­modern, the quest for a contemporary subjectivity and identity, the relation of art to structures of power, the varying challenges of gender, race, and ethni­city, to name only some of the most visible of these. (Carbon 1996, 7)

This calls for a further aspect of performance as a unifying activity that connects not only the above mentioned concerns of life but also, through the staging of these concerns, the artist with the audience. This thought is supported by Michel Benamou, who states that performance, “ ‘the uni­fying mode of the postmodern’, is by definition, an art form that involves [Aristotle’s] opsis [spectacle]; it establishes a unique relationship between artist and audience” (Benamou quoted in Perloff 1981, 289). Naturally, this relationship is not only established between the poet and the individual person in the audience, but “such performance is experienced by an individual who is also part of a group, so that social relations are built into the experience itself” (Carbon 1996, 199). Again these ties may be similarly felt at readings, or at the performing of a poem. Yet, apparently, the viewer and listener of a competitive performance poem is much more engaged with his or her senses at a poetry slam than at an ordinary reading. At a regular poetry slam or poetry jam, audience participation is guaranteed, as Maria Damon points out: “[t]hey marshall audience partici­pation, ensuring the poet that there will be an audience right through to the end”, as compared to open mic-readings, which are often “attended only by the reading poets and their friends” (Damon 1998, 333).

Moreover, performance poets, such as Carl Welden from Upstate New York, make the audience an integral part of their performances, either by walking among them and establishing direct contact with them, or by making them co-poets when he  asks  volunteers to read sentences from cue cards, as for example in his “I’m So Sorry About What Happened To Your Mind” piece. In this poem two volunteers from the audience by turns read apologetic sentences from cue cards, while Carl Welden stages his poem, demonstrating an outrage against the apologies that are verbally fired off from his left and from his right.

As will be mentioned in more detail in the section about African American performance poets, the written poem in performance poetry of­ten works as a score. Lorenzo Thomas goes so far as to see the written ver­sion as a pre-text to the audiotext of an oral performance of all kinds of poetry. He states:

[a]ll poetry is incomplete until it is read aloud. The idea that sophisticated readers can simulate this experience mentally, is of course, a longstanding article of faith that has been systematically assaulted by subsequent technological efforts to construct ‘virtual’ realities. Nevertheless, the poem printed on the page is effective when it functions as a memorandum to excite the reader’s recall of a previous performance, or serves as a score for future vocal reproduction. If the poet has done the job of preparing that alphabetic transcription well, she can be sure that the poem will live. (Thomas 1998, 320)

As argued in the section on “The Writing Poet”, I would not go so far as to say that all poetry is incomplete until it is read aloud; yet, there is an incredible number of poems that are written for the stage and therefore the  written text represents a score that finds its vocal and physical realization in performance only.

In concluding this section on the characteristics of performance poetry and the relation between the page and the stage, I would like to add that a “pure stager” may not even have a written script that he or she works from in a performance. David Antin, for example, who has been influenced by the surrealists’ spontaneity, records his poems that are orally composed during his performance and only later transcribes and publishes them (cf. Garber 1995, 81). Such a poem would theoretically qualify as a primary oral poem or, as Antin calls it, “talk-poem” (cf. Perloff 1981, 289).


Author’s Note: this text is part of the book Sounds of Poetry: Contemporary American Performance Poets, which was published in 2003 in the Gunter Narr Verlag Tübingen. The full version of the book is accessible as a .pdf file with a bibliography on the topic in Kenneth Goldsmith’s archive at http://www.ubu.com/.