ROOM FOR RHETORIC:
A poem on the page versus a poem performed aloud: are they the same text?
Christian Bök’s “Motorized Razors”
A poem on the page versus a poem performed aloud are—essentially—the same text. It is their delivery that makes the difference. Some are better read aloud (think Noyes’s “The Highway Man” or Lewis’s “The Jabberwocky”) while others look and have their best effect on the page (Sandburg’s “Fog”). This, of course, is subject to opinion, and I know several people (my Foothill buds in particular) who could effectively argue that Sandburg’s “Fog” is a horrible poem for the page, and crush me with their superb rhetorical skills. Instead of subjecting myself to this, I think I shall consult one of my favorite poet’s poem, titled “Poem.” That is, Alan Dugan.
After your first poetry reading
I shook hands with you
and got a hard-on. Thank you.
We know that old trees
can not feel a thing
when the green tips burst
through the tough bark in spring,
but that’s the way it felt,
that’s the Objective Correlative
between us poets, love:
a wholly unexpected pain
of something new breaking out
with something old about it
like your new radical poems
those audible objects of love
breaking out through nerves
as you sweated up on stage,
going raw into painful air
for everyone to know.
Dugan does an interesting thing here. A poem on the page about a poem read aloud merges this argument in a pretty spectacular way. He defines it as “a wholly unexpected pain…breaking out through nerves….you…going raw into painful air for everyone to know.” The idea of poetry read aloud as a sort of vulnerability is something that resonates particularly with me—and seems to be more provocative than privately read poetry on the page. Eve Sedgwick writes that “if…the lowering of the eyelids, the lowering of the eyes, the hanging of the head is the attitude of shame, it may also be that of reading” (Touching Feeling 114). She is most definitely not talking about reading poetry aloud in this assertion, but all the same: if by reading aloud we can put something more challenging in the air around us, rather than confining it to the page, I say all hands on deck.
Plus, any read-aloud poem that causes a hard-on is a poem that I, for one, would like to hear.
At a reading a couple years ago I heard Louise Gluck apologize for being a bad performer of her work. She further remarked that we in the audience would be far better off watching Kenneth Branagh perform “Mock Orange” so we should do something better with our Friday evening. We laughed, but no one left because we silently disagreed. Anyone who, like me, has spent in ecstasy whole Saturday evenings listening to poetry recordings on PennSound [link: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/], or who also like me, alleviates the strain and boredom of jogging by listening to Poem Talk podcasts [link: https://itunes.apple.com/artist/poetry-foundation/id270144143], knows better than many that a performance can crucially guide, complicate, and ultimately enlarge one’s reading of its poetic script. Can you imagine what a cultural treasure it would be to have a recording of Dickinson reading “I taste a liquor never brewed?” Chaucer reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale?” Listen to Pound read “Yeux Glauques.” [link: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Pound.php] You don’t need Judith Butler to tell you that some powerful (and potentially problematic) act of performativity is happening, one ripe for analysis. This gets right to the heart of why we are so grateful when the poets we publish in Foothill take the time to send in an audio or video performances of their work. Any close reading of a performance does not eclipse what can be gathered from the architecture of the poem on the page (see the intentional fallacy), the performance simply gives us more to consider, more to talk about, more to enjoy. In other words, a poem’s performance(s) are the same text—expanded.
No. I would not even call a poem read aloud a “text.” Rather, I would call it a reading. The convergence of reader/audience/spatial location and context lends itself to a multitude of interpretations, from dynamic and numerous perspectives. This is in direct contrast to the single-reader consumption of a poem on the page. A reading and text may both originate with the same poet, and be composed of the same words, but their entries into the world we live in are distinct. Further, the afterlife of a recorded reading in the digital sphere continues to morph the poem into a third type–the poem as podcast or the poem as mp3. Perhaps it could be argued that the text, reading and digital manifestations of a poem reflect our most popular forms of “literary” discourse–a discourse that is moving toward accessibility and hybridity.
In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong writes of the spoken word as “an event, a movement in time, completely lacking in the thing-like repose of the written or printed word” (75). In my last undergraduate semester at Cal, I took a class on the Fifties with Professor Ron Loewinsohn. We read Salinger and Burroughs; we watched James Dean play himself in Rebel Without a Cause. We also listened to a recording of Ginsberg reading Howl in Berkeley in 1956. In the recording, as Ginsberg’s lists accumulate, and as he chants of Moloch, the rhythm builds – it sounds in his voice, and we can hear it as it reverberates through the crowd, too. One of the approving whoops we hear on the tape, we’re told, is Loewinsohn, who had been present, and apparently enthusiastically so, at the reading that day. Since hearing that recording, in part because of Loewinsohn’s voice in the sounds of the crowd, I have always had a soft spot for Howl. The words that Ginsberg intones are more or less the same that appear in printed versions of Howl, but the recording of the performance reveals the spoken poem as a different text. The poem performed aloud, as Ong notes, is an event, one in which the audience is character and participant, and that tells not just the story of a poem, but the story of a poem received and appreciated.
Poetry on the page is a new thing, relatively speaking. It’s easy to forget that oral poetry has a much longer history, and that, when written down, the page served to record what was (or had been) primarily spoken. The spatial and textual component of poetry as we think of it now is pretty new in the scheme of things. So, no—they’re not the same. Take, for instance, The Canterbury Tales. Whether Chaucer’s poem was meant to be performed aloud or read in silence is debated. But for those who believe it is (and was) essentially performative, three lines from the general prologue stand out: “Of double worsted was his semi-cope, / that rounded as a belle out of the presse. / Somewhat he lisped, for his wantownesse.” These lines (describing the Friar) are heavy on the s-sound—precisely the sound most obviously lisped. The argument goes that whoever would be reading the poem (let’s say Chaucer) would read those three lines with a lisp to get some laughs. Are they the same thing written as read? Not really. The words are the same, but the effect is very different.