Going beyond performance
Much is made of the performance revolution in poetry. But is it an end or a means? Veteran poet Jared Smith considers the creative process in the wake of performance's fiat, poses an open question as to fame's influence on poets who "gig", and speculates how poetry may yet evolve.
filed 30 November 2001 | Chicago, IL, USA by Jared Smith
Poetry is far more than competing in or winning a slam poetry feature. That should not have to be said in a city such as Chicago, with its rich literary and poetic history. But so it is. Too many of today's poets have gotten caught up in the ephemeral performance aspects of their art, and have forgotten that the performance is only a medium of delivery. Too often in their drive to improve that performance they are forced to traipse from one venue to another, joining a long line of other hopeful voices who speak repeatedly to the same audiences week after week. It can be addictive; the laughter and applause of friends is a wonderful salve after a day on the job. But one cannot give in too far to the addiction. One must have the time--frequent time--to draw into oneself and study the creative process, or there will very little to perform in the long run.
The creative process itself does not include crowded rooms or competition at all. If a poem emerges from the creative process in a form that lends itself to performance, that may give it an initial edge. Whether it has that edge or not, however, it is inevitably judged by people going about their lives with the intensity of love and death. It will be judged by content, complexity, degree of clarity or mysticism, and how it looks on the page as well as how it sounds. In other words, by whether it can speak to an audience with a uniquely discernable voice that leads the audience to experience the vision that the poet was trying to communicate when it was transcribed.
That vision, if it is to be remembered, must go beyond performance and become a view of a newly uncovered reality. It must further create urgency within listeners to get hold of a copy of the transcription so that they can relive it in the richness of their home environment. In that home environment, the true poem will say something its audience and readers will wish to revisit over time in all the moods of life individuals go through. In that way, the poem will change perception and increase understanding of the world we live within.
In 1992, Dana Giorio noted in Can Poetry Matter? (Graywolf Press) that the general audience that used to read poetry was losing interest in the art. That was, and is, particularly disheartening at a time when the number of literary magazines and readings, along with funding from the arts councils, was increasing to levels never seen before. How could the number of literary magazines and open mic readings be increasing while the readership declined, he wondered. How could it be that almost no books of poetry were being reviewed by even the literary establishment? Why was it that even as almost every liberal arts college in the country expanded its literature department to churn out poets with creative writing degrees, fewer and fewer of those poets were achieving recognition by the reading public?
Those were good questions, and relevant today because the problem has continued to grow. There are many answers; writing in general, and poetry in particular, has many definitions and goals. Dana suggested a very interesting correlation between the growth of small magazines and presses and the demise of poetry in the general literary community. He suggested the increase in the number of small presses was required to meet the publish-or-perish needs of the new creative writing teachers who were being hired by universities. Further, he suggested, many of these new creative writing teachers lacked the scholarly familiarity with literature in general that other more established members of the literature faculty had; they wrote with a freewheeling shoot-from-the-hip individualistic style that was not acceptable to the established presses.
That could have been a good thing. Poetry and literature need to be shaken up periodically and bruised in order to allow civilization to move forward. The small magazines that make up the literary press are small because they innovate; they push out old traditions and introduce new concepts. But the problem was that the number of new small magazines, along with the volume of new work being brought to press even in established journals, expanded so rapidly that it became impossible for even a dedicated reader to find time to look over all the material and develop any cohesion of thought as to what was happening. The public, that has always provided some degree of basic support for the arts in general, became overwhelmed and lost interest.
Without scholarship and without a general audience to support it, poetry lost almost all significance to anyone other than those who struggled in themselves to use it as a means to better understand the world or their place in it. Great poems were written, and some published. Some good poets found each other even then because of their commitment, read each other, and spent time together. The general public found it hard to locate and read them, though. Anthologists were overwhelmed by the number of journals they had to look through to find material for collection and editing, and so the quality of anthologies deteriorated for the most part. A few outstanding editors and publishers kept the faith. But the reading public was farther away than ever. It was inevitable that a small but growing group of poets would come up with the idea of performance poetry: a media for delivering poetry directly to the masses while bypassing the small presses and going directly to the people.
Performance poetry took off powerfully, building on the oral traditions of Beat poetry, of Walt Whitman, even of the scops who recited The Neibelungenlied to early Germanic warriors, or to the poets who recited Homer around Grecian campfires. A new legitimacy and immediacy was offered to the people for awhile. New "unpoetic" words and increased urgency of feeling were brought into the mix. The language was updated, just as William Wordsworth updated it when he and Coleridge introduced Lyrical Ballads. (That volume and its language may seem dated today to many poets who have not studied the length of literature, but it was so revolutionary in its use of "common language" when it came out, that The London Times reviewed it with only one sentence: "This will never do.") It is unfortunate that the media became the message for so many.
Performance poetry became the thing to do. Given well-written material, it could be dynamic and vital in performance. It promised a new and easier pathway to growth, a new chance. But performance poetry that focuses so strongly on the performance that it does not allow a poet the hours of solitude required to write, has not, and will never, raise the art form to the point of serious literature among the general audience whose support is needed if poets are ever to be able to make a legitimate living--a living that reflects the history of the art in its ability to shape ideas and language. Partly that is because performance poetry is by current definition transient, and cannot be studied and collected. Nor is there much opportunity for performance poets to benefit from the kind of good direction an editor can give as to what is effective and what is cliché; though that may change as performance poetry starts to be selected, stored, and anthologized in electronic archives. (Editor's note: This change is precisely the intent behind e-poets' Book of Voices.)
Let's not talk about the poets we have grown up with and "worked gigs with," because we know many of them so well that we might have trouble saying which ones actually have work that stands out separately from their living personalities and charismatic force. In general, though, reflecting on the readings you have been to in recent years, are there more outstanding poets than in the past? Are there fewer? Given the numbers practicing today, one would expect an extraordinary outflowing of talent and greatly increasing crowds of non-poet listeners as well. I have not seen that. I admit readily and gladly that there are some great poets living. But what percentage of poets even esteem to try to explore the depth and variety of vision offered by those we can look back upon from our quite recent literary past? I'm thinking of such diverse and immensely complex poets as W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stephens, Marian Moore, Edwin Arlington Robinson, James Dickey, Randal Jarrell, Gregory Corso, and ... (one can add many other significant poets to that list.) Those writers overlap little more than two generations, and it is impressive that so many memorable poets came out of that short a period of time. They all struggled with many aspects of life beyond--or instead of--universities, and beyond public speaking venues, and prevailed. The general public read them, and it still does.
These poets read each other's works, far more than they studied each other's stage presence. They learned to build on what others living and dead had already established;. just as artists of all kinds in all times have studied the works of their predecessors and contemporaries. They studied the art of writing; some of them studied performance as well, by observing each other. But they saw themselves as poets and players in the full sweep of human experience, not performers in small rooms. That self-vision of what they were gave them the stature and the confidence to comment on all aspects of life that faced the general reading public. That is why they were read.
It is important to live life fully enough to be able to write it out before performing. A poet must be well read, literate, and reflective. Innovative with ideas and language.
What is this essay about? It is a plea to revive the evolution of poetry by reinjecting the awareness that we are in a physical, emotional, and intellectual continuum. We will carry our portion of that continuum forward, if we communicate with and respect those around us, regain our general audience and further develop its depth. Keep the performance, but slow it down enough that we can read and listen to our contemporaries and our past. Performance after the fact of writing can be a wonderful set of skills, a strong tool for communicating insight. Slow it down enough that we can listen to our own thoughts and allow our impressions to develop. Include the intellect and our awareness of our place in history and society with our sensuality.
Every writer whom we remember from past generations has a uniquely urgent voice that fits within his or her time and helps to define that time as well as ours. That includes Sylvia Plath's Achtung! confessionalism, Robert Lowell's intellectual precision, and many issues in between that we have learned from. Poets can make a profound difference in the evolution of our culture and our country. That is because poetry derives from the essence of life experience. It is drawn from our varied experiences and from those we are aware of around us. Poetry is not a trivial thing: it is the byproduct of putting food on the table, of doctoring, of conducting business, of teaching, of fighting for personal freedom in a highly complex society. The performance is merely the recitation, the recounting. Such diverse voices as Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and Miller Williams have read at U.S. Presidential inaugurations; they are the only three to have done so. Good poets, certainly, but what of all the others, and what relevance does any sort of public recognition have to poetic achievement?
Who is to say what poet's struggle was the hardest or most successful? That is irrelevant, as the above example shows. That official recognition, limited as it was, was a byproduct. It did not reflect the poetry any more directly than the poetry reflected the struggle for meaning those individuals carried through their lives. Are these poets performance poets then, because they captivated large audiences, and were recognized as something other than they were? Or did they captivate large audiences because they learned how to find relevance in the continuum around them, so that their performance was on the world stage?