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Amodern 4: The Poetry Series


Al Filreis

The paratextual aspect of a poem as performed during a live poetry reading – its paraphonotexuality, including but not limited to what Peter Middleton calls “unplanned sound,” “obtrusive failures of attention,” and the like1 – is most readily apprehended by audiences in the prefatory remark offered by the poet. The full phonotext, to be sure, encompasses (1) the totality of sounded significations, meaning made by actualization of the “poetic voice”; (2) text as score, or “the scripted incarnation of the poem,” in Charles Bernstein’s phrase,2 presented as orality but “also” available in print; (3) accidental ambient noises, made by audience and by the room itself, as Middleton observes, for readings that are recorded; (4) signs of the technological medium itself; and (5) vocal interpolations by the poet that are not, but can seem to be, part of the text-as-score as delivered. Let us consider this fifth element for its sometimes surprising ambiguity, as it is not always evident that the prefatory remark is indeed paratextual – not obvious that it isn’t the opening of the poem itself, already underway.

Because of the demotic metricality and apparent linguistic off-handedness of The Sonnets of Ted Berrigan, for instance, the audience hearing the entire run of sonnets at the New Langton Arts Center in June of 1981, more detailed information read here – unless they had a copy of the printed text or knew the poems well – could not always disaggregate the end of the previous sonnet, the extrapoetic remark as postscript or preamble, and the first line of the next sonnet. Berrigan announced sonnet 51 in the sequence by calling out the number, but then performed 52, 53, and 54 without signaling the changes. Because sonnets 52 and 53 consist of some overlapping lines, hearers are already challenged with an odd aural sense of progress. At New Langton, moreover, the presentation of these sonnets was interrupted by an improvised meta-commentary on performance that was prompted by audience laughter instigated by the poet’s amusement at his lines. “I’m not patronizing these poems either,” Berrigan said, defensively clarifying. “If they’re making me laugh in that way, they were doing it when I was writing them too.” Berrigan seeks to keep his poem from drifting too far from the state of its composition – does not want his hearers to believe he was gaining tonal distance from the act of writing. His comment was followed by the performance of the first phrase of the first line of this version of 53 (“The poem upon the page…”), reasonably striking the listener as contiguous with the remark connecting the poem back to its textual composition. The performance and recorded sound of the first line of the poem, notwithstanding its poetic diction (the use of “upon”), verges on commentary.3 By sharpening discernment of the paratextual element as more or less distinct from the poem itself, audiences during the course of a reading become iteratively experienced in hearing the differences in the tone, phrasing, vocal pitch, and diction of both spoken paratext and sounded scripted text. Listeners to the archival recording of Berrigan’s remarkable, extended reading can experience a similar increasing acumen. In a statement4 promulgating the importance of the phonotext as a means of increasing our understanding of poetry generally, Steve Evans describes what happens when, in effect, listeners to recordings of live readings become less rather than more aware of such iterative experience. What Evans calls “vanishing mediators” – the disappearance of the audiographical facts of the poem as technically reproduced, digitally re-copied, and disseminated; the erasure or forgetting of mechanical technique that had been layered onto performative poetic mode – can be extended to the problem presented by the various paraphonotextual elements. Belated learning through increased aural attention mitigates the vanishing mediator.

Such extrapoetic factors do serve as specific cues to the listener as to how to respond to a poem, and there emerges an aural literary history tracing a lineage of ways in which poets’ responses have in turn encouraged the alteration of the performance of the poem in mid-performance. In an early live presentation of “America” (now available for streaming at the Poetry Archive and the Poetry Foundation5), Allen Ginsberg first describes the poem as a draft and then begins to read it somewhat cautiously and modestly. But once the audience begins to respond with empathetic laughter, applause, and verbal encouragements, Ginsberg’s performance becomes increasingly antic, broad, parodic, falsely plaintive – full of the faux self-abnegation that would become one of the poet’s hallmark modes. This performance, probably his first of this poem, consists of his impromptu response to the impromptu response of its witnesses. When one can find a recording of the first performance of a poem – when it is still in draft, or is completed but not yet published; when the poet is recorded in the act of verifying its aural status – the paraphonotext can be put to particular interpretive use. In one of the earliest performances of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Around” – in September of 2007, when the poem’s inclusion in a book, the award-winning Versed, was still two years away – she offers no prefatory remark. She begins to read the poem in earnest. The twenty-four poems that had already been performed to this point in the reading included several about her cancer diagnosis, surgery, and post-operative treatment. “Around” then seemed of a piece. The poem “Own,” read four poems prior to “Around,” had been one in this sequence; the audience had listened to “Own” in silence. In the opening stanza we hear what might be the titular voice, although the word “own” has yet to appear in the body of the text:6

Woman in a room near mine moans, “I’m dying, I want

to be fine. It’s my body!

Don’t let me! Don’t touch me!”7

Some lines later, a punning yet deadly serious aphorism is offered through quotation marks. The torqued aphorism affirms the poem’s role as a cancer patient’s ars poetica:

“But the part is sick

of representing the whole.”

When I heard “Own” performed for the first time, I noted in my first response a disconcerting sense of relief: as Armantrout performed this series it occurred to me that a poet already expertly practiced in part-by-part disjunction and juxtapositional open-endedness would be just the one, through a deep memory of trauma expressed in a surface of language, to bear witness most keenly to dire internal threat, such that the angry rebellion of the cell-level self in a body would continue to relinquish wholes and defend parts. By the time “Around” comes around in this reading, we are with the poet and her husband (Chuck – named in the poem) as they visit potential burial plots. It’s a sad poem, but gives way soon to a potential laugh line. The site husband and wife select for the internment of the poet’s remains has a breathtaking view of the Pacific coast, and “Chuck sees places / where he might snorkel.” No prefatory cue as to tone having guided us, the audience that evening at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia seemed to wait for any initial response. It came from an audience member, the poet Charles Bernstein, who laughed heartily at the first hint of what he took to be morbidly ironic wit; soon he laughed more vociferously at the line just quoted (“he might snorkel”), which in turn caused the performer to smile (and in the audio-only recording one can hear the smile’s effect on words just then pronounced) and then to give a slight laugh herself, although without breaking stride in the reading of the lines. Once the performance of the poem was completed, Armantrout implicitly acknowledged the way in which her sense of it had been altered by the response: “Charles! You have such a grim sense of humor. [Laughs.]”8 In the next recording of the poem available in the PennSound archive – dated May 2010, by which time Versed had been published, “Around” appearing in the section called Dark Matter – the poet offered a prefatory cue: “This one is not quite as… well, this one is grim but maybe a little funny too.”9 The paraphonotextual element enables some justifiable surmise as to Ginsberg’s and Armantrout’s expectations about the tone of poems then in draft, assumptions modified in a temporally specific way – a process leaving evidence that is potentially as persuasive as a holograph bearing revisions. The accommodation is arguably discernible through close listening of the phonotext adjacent to the poem.

In paraphonotexuality, adjacency is all. Poetry readings, poem by poem, are paratactic if apprehended as an entire performance – something of what Wallace Stevens deemed “a whole Harmonium” – but not radically so. (Performed poems, even if presented in carefully designed sequence, are not meant to seem equal in importance. In the poetry reading, emphasis rises and falls poem to poem. Experienced listeners can hear in the voice – and not always from the text itself – the poem being summoned to serve as topical or tonal transition or as a light moment between heavier pieces. Voice assigns poems roles in the event.) The fundamental separation, through recording technology, of the sound of poems from their source – the storing of them in physical and then digital media, the releasing of them “into a new spatio-temporal context” – has the counterintuitive potential of enhancing rather than disabling the audience’s sense of the juxtaposition of and between texts and paratexts. Evans calls this technical separation a “secular miracle” and, while expressing concern over lessened consciousness of the vanishing mediator, he is clearly delighted by the way the widening of the field of textuality has begun to include not just the sounded text as data but as metadata.10 Within the whole recording of a reading – that is, the reading of many poems in a sequence structured performatively – adjacency and ordination provide a sort of metadata. This point might seem obvious, but not if we mean metadata as the audio archivist means it.11

In a 1988 reading at the Ear Inn in New York, Bernadette Mayer presented eighteen poems. The fifth and sixth were “Do You Have Sex in the Bed of [sic] the Floor?” and “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty.”12 The latter was published, collected, and anthologized.13 Mayer offered no prefatory remark before reading it. Its earnest and unironic quotations from Emma Lazarus and the directness of its criticism of gentrification, and embrace of the radically local politics of parental engagement with public education, make for clear aural interest and fairly straightforward interpretation. “Do You Have Sex in the Bed of the Floor?” on the other hand, is an uncollected poem; the manuscript is preserved among Mayer’s papers at the Mandeville Special Collections Library at University of California, San Diego.14 The tone of the poem encountered apart from the live or recorded reading is entirely unclear. It is ungrammatical; while Mayer’s listeners are soon familiar with her informal vernacular and frank idiomatic speech, they do not expect missing parts of speech and subject-verb disagreement, nor the fractured prepositional phrase (“of the floor”) in the title. So “Do You Have Sex,” on its own, might seem to displace the poetic “I,” voicing the voices of others, but the special politics on behalf of that particular Other might remain hidden. The recorded paratext provides not just the poem’s politics, but its rationale for standing politically as well as poetically alongside “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty,” which is a poem celebrating the U.S. Bicentennial. “This is a poem,” we hear Mayer say into the microphone at the Ear Inn, “that was written by my students in Junior High School 104. And I hope none of their parents are here. It’s a collaborative work by them.” While lines such as “How does it get so big?” and “When he gets excited what comes of it. Cum. / When he sticks it in the rectum, does it hurt?” seem merely salacious, the poem becomes still more shocking when one realizes that the voices in the poem that are not the speaker’s are those of schoolchildren fulfilling a classroom assignment, students whom the poet was teaching at the Simon Baruch Middle School on East 21st Street in Manhattan. Having been given the constraint, the children through the poem collectively ask where adults in their lives have sex, producing this result in a poem then performed in an insular bohemian space (a site to which even the radically democratic poet hopes none of their parents have access): “Anywhere possible or between the crib” (emphasis added).15 The children too-clearly see what is happening to and around them and their young siblings. Mayer starkly presents the fractured awareness of the proximity of adult sexuality and in part wants to convey, in a collage of common scenes, the cramped hassle and rude incongruity of urban domestic parenting. “Do You Have Sex” makes no overt narrative judgment; its unlikely connection to “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty” is to doubly imply the power of parental involvement as a form of extreme social alterity – first, by thematizing how terribly much the children know; and second, by producing the results of the avant-garde poet’s very presence, as parent and artist at once, in the public school classroom, liberating the voices of children through her willingness to experiment with collaborative text and the politics of voice. The poem’s questionable erotics is its earnest political ethics. The canonized “Tragic Condition” gains significantly from its full phonotextual context, despite the easy categorical separation of the recording from its origins, and this, I think, speaks both to the centrality and the interpretive power of the secular miracle Evans describes.

Evans’s work – and that of the scholars collaborating to create the SpokenWeb project, among others16 – has insisted on a categorical rigor lacking in many critical and pedagogical responses to the emergence of now ubiquitously available recordings of poetry readings and to the increasing institution of audio recordings as resources for classroom teaching in a world of literary pedagogy still dominated by the book as base referent. The main contribution of Georg Stanitzek’s “Texts and Paratexts in Media” (2005) to the field of phonotexuality was his foregrounding of Gerard Genette’s “predeliction for classification” – a quasi-obsession with book/text distinctions that led, in Stanitzek’s view, to a productive confusion over the “significance of the book” and its relation to critiques of the term text.17 The signal moment in Stanitzek’s argument, I think, comes when he moves from Genette to Theodor Adorno (“beyond the ‘idea of the book … no other representation of spirit in language … might exist without betraying truth’”18 ) and is then reminded of Jacques Derrida’s assertion in Of Grammatology that if we “distinguish the text from the book” we come to realize, at a time when “the destruction of the book…is now under way” everywhere, that “the surface of the text” is thus “denude[d].”19 Stanitzek’s description of the way in which “important media-specific variants of paratexts can be observed”20 follows from Derrida’s early recognition that paratextual elements of new-media texts are indeed textual and Derrida’s error in theorizing violence done to texts when the book as pre-eminent textual medium is disaffirmed. Stanitzek is mainly interested in the paratext of film, but the poets, critics, and theorists whose essays are gathered in Close Listening, Adelaide Morris in Sound States, the curation-minded scholars of the phonotext at PennSound, SpokenWeb, and UbuWeb, and others, have asserted and now proceed from the stipulation that the recording of poetic performance derives its conveyance of textuality in such a way now as actually to put few hearers in mind of the book. These recent advances in classifying phonotextuality perhaps mask the insufficiencies of critical writing about poetry readings earlier. When asked to write about the phenomenon of the poetry reading for The American Scholar, Donald Hall began with the popular assumption – with which he, as a poet who has always given many public readings, either did or pretended partly to share21 – of its triviality and ultimate irrelevance to poetic value. Hall’s essay, “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance/Private Art,” notes (incorrectly) that “most readings” are sponsored by departments of English at colleges and universities and that that very entity, as host, “is ambivalent on the subject.” Hall’s focus is on the reading as an inapt extrapoetic socio-economics – a “gig” for which there are ritualized invitations, fees, in some cases agents handling arrangements, a whirlwind of airports and unctuous professorial hosts. Hall quotes John Frederick Nims, the poet who had been an editor of Poetry, arguing that “poetry readings are to our time what the Black Plague was to the fourteenth century.”22 Significantly, when Nims elaborated this view he focused not on the reading of the poems themselves but on what he deemed the annoying, irrelevant – merely performative – paratext: “your imperfect sentences, your repeated phrases, your false pathos, your drawings and denouncings, your humming and hawing, your oh-ing and ah-ing.”23 To prepare for his essay, Hall consulted with Katharyn Machan, who was at the time “studying readings” (for a doctorate in performance studies); from among the information Machan provided Hall, he selected the example of a poet who refused to dramatize and gave poetry readings in which he “attempts to be as much like the printed page as possible” – a non-performativity befitting Hall’s satire of the poetry reading’s irrelevance and supporting the idea that boredom as a response to the poem abets anti-humanistic loathing. Of course the assumption here is that the poet whose performance is intentionally flat – who seeks for instance to keep all tonal options open for the hearer, who eschews the typical interpretive guidance of the audience through vocal cues – contributes to the problem of “bad poets perform[ing] bad poems badly” and cannot really be counted as performing; this phenomenon is summoned by Hall to help us contemplate why we bother about poetry readings in the first place.24

Assessments such as Hall’s do tend to focus on tone.25 Otherwise, Hall’s essay is as far as it could be from a consideration of the phonotext as valid “edition” of the poems. Tone is the one central textual element of traditional interpretation that has always assumed a sounding, at least as a residual of dead metaphorical connection to aurality. But of course according to hermeneutic convention tone need not refer in the work of the critic to the sound of the poet or others reading the poem aloud. Reading tone is also among the most difficult textual interpretive skills to acquire, and yet, as teachers of poetry have been among the first to discover, the aural record of the poet’s performance readily enables a nuanced discussion of satire, irony, and parody in particular. While the recent application of high-performance computing to entire audio archives, such as the emerging program “ARLO” (Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization) applied to PennSound, might soon automate discernment of lineation, rhyme, the grammar of imperatives, and the presence of certain stanzaic forms, it seems unlikely, at least any time soon, to be able to identify tonality as indicating a semantic relationship of the poem’s voice to the speaker’s attitude toward subject matter. Rather than pushing the problem of tone out of discussions of phonotextuality, this complication ought to place it at or near the center. If it was the intention of Hall, via Machan’s data, to support his thesis that poetry readings are extraneous to poetic value by referring to the absurdity of a poet traveling a distance and receiving a speaking fee only in order to voice a poem in person with a deliberate lack of tonal affect, it is perhaps a primary goal of the scholar of the audio archive to guide us toward ways of reading the phonotext for both textually internal and paraphonotextual evidence of the poet’s tone. The future of critical responses to John Ashbery’s poetry, it might be argued, will depend less on the poet’s persistent avowals of the importance of tonal neutrality – for these can be ascribed to temperamental shyness masking as a conceptualist rigor – than on the audio archive of recordings of Ashbery’s readings ranging from 1951 to 2013 (dozens of readings, hundreds of poems, preserved and now available at PennSound) in which tone color or tone quality, pitch, loudness, etc. can be in each instance juxtaposed with diction, word choice, metrical pacing and the speaker’s attitude toward subject matter. The tonal flatness of repeated readings of Ashbery’s “What Is Poetry,” for example – its status as what Bernstein calls “radically ‘poor theater’”26 – enables irony if one considers that in the poem itself the poet-speaker seems to be writing it in response to repeated queries seeking a simple definition of the genre. The poet-speaker in the poem who wrote the poem is easily confused with the eminent poet reading the poem once again. Hearers might well wonder if the poet has become bored with this oft-requested chestnut – if he has stopped trying to make this poem sound fresh or interesting – until perhaps the poem’s semantic content indicates that it is indeed about the tediousness and specifically the pointlessness of the request. And just when one settles into the realization of perfect harmonizing of non-performativity, tone, and subject matter, the final line arrives (“It might give us – what? – some flowers soon?”), with its exhausted and amused deflation of celebration. It’s not the valedictory bouquet one receives upon graduation, as it were, from the “school” where “all the thought got combed out,” but the aesthetic pleasure the poet-speaker derives from creating a list of non-sequitur responses to the unanswerable titular question (the list is in the poem’s famously paratactic opening lines). Whether poetry has any effect – the question What is poetry? seems after all to be an existential challenge – is a problem answered by the non-affective pose. Hearing the poet read without affect makes this reading not just likely but, it could be argued, almost inevitable. In this instance, as in many others, phonotextual evidence of tone is supplemented by the paraphonotext. Giving a reading on BBC Radio 3 in 1999, Ashbery introduced his performance of “What Is Poetry” by describing the origin of the piece: in 1974, “when [he] could at last no longer escape teaching,” the poet’s students persistently asked why their teacher called this a poem but not that. “‘What is poetry anyway?’” they asked. The result was writing bearing a pedagogy, a work instructing his students – and us, of course – in the importance of the non-answer in verse (criticism as poem, poem as criticism) just when an answer “in school” is expected. The poet is not a teacher; rather, he could simply “no longer escape” it. But the poetry will proffer a postmodern pedagogy, a tonal non-didacticism born of exactly the urge that typically produces definition, ordination, and semanticism.27

Meter is tonal too, of course. The audio archive of recorded readings is replete with unique evidence of poets’ metrical designs. Even the most regular iambic tetrameter or pentameter line, read silently on a page, can be variously sounded. It can mean regularity or it can imply a belief in prosodic transparency, not calling attention to itself as regular. It might or might not refer beyond text-metricality to the larger literary history to which it pays homage or alters or challenges, or indeed bitterly parodies. The sound of a poet’s voice in the recording of a reading of an homage poem will bespeak the tone of the line. An exaggeration of the iamb suggests criticism or even rebuke – irony expressed solely through meter. Even a modest irregularizing of regular iambic pentameter, with its almost automatic summoning of the English verse tradition, can suggest that the use of the iambic is meant to convey natural speech. When Robert Frost performed what are perhaps the four most regular iambic pentameter lines in modern American poetry –

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

– his ambition was apparently to draw our attention away from the lines’ uniformity and predictability, as the speaker and his neighbor ritually maintain the impediment of subjectivity fabricated between them. A five-foot line that is most certainly not iambic pentameter, which cannot be read as iambic without ironic self-consciousness, Frost pronounces as close to regularly as possible without, as it were, crossing the line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The iambics of “Mending Wall” have been parodied but not because of anything Frost did with his voice in performance. There is discernible in the audio archive a relationship with literary history itself: not only in Frost’s suppression of a too-iambic meter and, the obverse, his drawing out the iambic quality of the non-iambic line, but also in the oral presentational strategies of poets operating consciously in the mode of Frostian performance. William Stafford, in “Traveling through the Dark,” his poem about encountering and then discarding a dead pregnant doe on a rural road, reaches a general statement of his natural dilemma at the end of the first stanza: “to swerve might make more dead.” Like Frost, Stafford reads aloud with a smooth, casual-seeming colloquialism, to help belie the lines’ formality, and here in one recording of the poem28 he emphatically pauses after the first foot (“to swerve”), an effort to control the perception of the phrase’s iambic potential. The speaker overcomes the dilemma by disposing of the doe’s body, preventing human destruction by not “swerving.” Thus, he says, he “thought hard for us all.”29 The masculine presumption in this – a natural heroic stance tempered by caution, civic-minded generosity, and proximity to correct super-hearing (“I could hear the wilderness listen”) – is aided by the carefully modulated echo of Frost.

Our sense of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Traveling through the Yard,” published first in her book Precedence and later included in Veil: New and Selected Poems, will depend entirely on interpreting tone. The poem’s dedication reads: “(For William Stafford).” Insofar as Stafford’s “Dark” suggests a metaphysical grandeur and hints at a mysterious capacity for allegory, and Armantrout’s “Yard” suggests a boundaried and unnatural space, the homage might range from elaboration, domestication, complementarity, and rebuke; it might seem to be a poem “after” the mode of a favored predecessor. Stafford’s doe is Armantrout’s dove – both alive, as it were, with the prospect of symbolism. In the end, for the reader of the poem as text, Armantrout’s critical parodic intention is perhaps sufficiently clear: where Stafford’s speaker – ethical, indigenous, naturally familiar – pushes the doe “over the edge into the river,” Armantrout’s speaker – anxious, domestic, put-upon – “heave[s] it / across the marriage counselor’s fence,” thus raising, although by no means resolving, the issue of Stafford’s gendering of the victim. The rescuer’s relation to the doe, the unborn but living fawn in utero, and prospective human drivers on the narrow road whose reprieve from swerving now need not “make more dead.” The phonotext resolves any doubt about the tone of Armantrout’s response.

Armantrout performed “Traveling through the Yard”30 at a double Segue Series reading (with Ron Silliman) at the Ear Inn in New York on April 7, 1984. The complete reading31 took twenty-five minutes, and it consisted of twenty-four poems from Precedence, which would be published by Burning Deck Press nine months later. To judge from its various vocal and other audible responses – a key element, of course, in the paraphonotext – the Ear Inn audience included friends and colleagues. Armantrout’s newest pithy disjunctions received a supportive hearing. One could almost call the scene communal, and it, though less raucous, puts one in mind of the audience first hearing Ginsberg’s “America,” responding to the poem in such a way as to encourage and shape its vocalization in real time – a co-production of sound in several respects. As Armantrout introduced the poem in 1984, mentioning its title and its basis in Stafford’s, the audience laughed at the dark to yard diminution. The poem’s short lines, generally of three feet, seem to make the poem, if a parody, responsive primarily to Stafford by way of theme; formally Armantrout’s poem seems not especially responsive to the tradition one can hear in Stafford’s elaboration of Frost’s natural metrical swerve. But then Armantrout arrives at the poem’s eighth line: “To leave that there would make some stink!” – a parodic echo of Stafford’s “to swerve might make more dead.” Armantrout performs the iambic tetrameter with humorous over-emphasis, and it causes laughter in the audience sufficient to require a doubtless appreciative pause by the poet, apparently taking in her hearer’s alignment with the work’s mock of Stafford’s grand lyric gesturing. Armantrout does not sound like Stafford at that moment, though; indeed, she is imitating Frost. In “some stink,” which might otherwise be a trochee – “some” expressing astonishment, equally weighted with “stink,” with emphasis on the remarkable quality of the smell – the shift to the forced iamb calls attention to the falsity and pretension of Stafford’s literary-historical gesture in a way that strikes Armantrout’s aesthetically collegial hearers as more humorous than mere thematic rejoinder. The most puissant parody was in the metrical performativity.

The literary communality in the Language poet’s confrontation with Stafford’s Frostian poetics, and its larger meaning for aesthetic ideology, was affirmed in another recording of Armantrout in which she read and then discussed “Traveling through the Yard.” She observed that it had been Bob Perelman – then a west coast Language Poetry colleague – who first pointed out the “egregious” quality of the earlier poem. Perelman was himself in the audience receiving this remark, and can himself be heard – a crucial bit of paratextual evidence for the poem’s ultimate aim, which I believe is to situate itself in the history of contemporary writing that itself indicates its self-conscious attention to speaking’s relation to hearing. “It’s such hubris that [Stafford] thinks the wilderness is listening to him,” Armantrout observed. That the poem is about sound – specifically, a critique of conventions of poetic hearing – is here reckoned from the audio archive, from materials that include such paraphonotextuality as indications of audience response and its iterative effect on performed meter and thus tone, on the poet’s commentary, on hearers’ comments about the sound of sentiment,32 on the poetic identifying (as discernible from the recording) of individual audience members, and the values – acoustic, of course, but also socio-literary – of the venue.

Frederick Stern in his essay “The Formal Poetry Reading” successfully adduces Erving Goffman and Richard Schechner and other theorists of performance in order to test the relevance of heuristic binarisms such as Schechner’s “participates/watches” and “believes/appreciates.”33 It’s not entirely clear to me why Stern chose to focus on “formal” readings, but the distinction between “formal readings” and readings in which “acting and displaying” and “spectacle” and “performance” are emphasized more than “reading … [of] the text as voice” is belied by the range of events such as those represented in the archive of recordings that, as it turns out, mostly includes hybrid events defying any clear distinctions between and among pre-textual performance, voiced presentations of written text, and seminar-style symposia in which poems are collaborations of speakers and listeners. When one listens to dozens or hundreds of archived readings – to be sure, to prepare his article in 1991 Stern did not have this benefit – one finds it difficult to identify very many events “to which the audience c[a]me[…] to see the poet and hear her/him read, but at which it d[id] not expect acting, spectacle, ‘performance.’”34 The separation of reading the text as voiced, on the one hand (Stern’s sense of “formal” as a category for analysis), from performance of poetry in which spectacle, competent co-creation, communality, and expressions (or other aural evidence) of hearers’ intense affinity, on the other (what Stern chooses to exclude), is not tenable. Once the event is in the past, the discernment of nuanced ways in which the formal participates/watches believes/appreciates ratio breaks down will depend on paraphonotextual traces. Consider again the two recordings of Rae Armantrout mentioned above. At the 1984 Ear Inn reading one segment of the audience was hearing this West Coast-based “language poet” for the first time live, while another segment – the louder of the two – consisted of colleagues, supporters, and politico-aesthetic fellow travelers seeking community and mutual affirmation. The performance of hyperiambic orality – thus the pushing of an interpretation of the poem’s response to the Frostian element of Stafford – was a specific response to this particular audience, at this special moment in the acceptance of a poetic movement going national, at this particularly supportive site – less auditorium than “coffee shop or kiva” (“where poetry actually happens” – to use Jerome Rothenberg’s key phrase in “A Dialogue on Oral Poetry”35 ). It was a very specific response but it is irrevocably part of the interpretive record. The affirmation of this interpretation exactly thirty years later, with several vocal people in the room in 2014 who had been there in 1984, was similarly “a formal reading,” but the poet, and her host-interlocutor (this author), were sitting at a table, and the audience, at level line of sight, faced us in the semi-round and sat as close as three feet and no further than twenty-five – and were invited to interject, query, and add to the permanent sounded account. The believes/appreciates binarism makes no sense to anyone listening. Belief – in the poet but also in the very conceptualization of the venue – need not be ever very far from appreciation.

If as Lorenzo Thomas puts it in “Neon Griot” “[d]ynamic interactive relationships – formal and informal – between artist and audience define the heritage of the poetry reading,” and if readings “have been perceived as entirely secondary to the existence of poems as printed texts,” then the recovery of the interactive relationship is itself at stake in the analysis of the paraphonotexual obtrusions, for these are external only when wrongly perceived to be irrelevant to the heritage Thomas and others seek to recover.36 It is helpful, I think, to contemplate this project – repressing canonical repression in order to stimulate evidentiary recovery – in light of Bernstein’s advocacy in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word for emphasizing infrastructure over spectacle. The dense semantic field provided us by the full phonotext is evidence of the interactive relationship which is in turn evidence of an alternative heritage; studies of infrastructure – amplification, audiographical technology, archive-minded poetry communities and their venues – adduce that evidence more persuasively than applications of performance theories such as Stern’s.

The application of Erving Goffman’s “The Lecture” to “the formal poetry reading” is a case in point. Typically serious and “slightly impersonal,” its “intent” being “not mere entertainment, emotional impact, or immediate action,”37 the lecture enables Stern’s (false) distinction between formal reading and “poetry festival” (communal, political, project-based readings characterized by passion and belief). Goffman stresses in the lecture “the speaker’s subject matter, not his antics.” “The subject matter is meant to have its own enduring claims upon the listeners… A lecture…take[s] the audience right past the auditorium, the occasion.”38 Bringing Goffman back to the poetry reading, Stern elides “the subject matter” and “the poetry itself.”39 But what if the phonotext persuades us that the poet’s “antics” are the subject matter and that “the poetry itself” is wholly its presentation? And what if “immediate action” is the aim, and that action is an audience’s formulation of a response such that the poetry being performed alters as its response in turn? Of such action there are numerous examples, and once again traces of paraphonotexuality are the key to its discernment. As for “antics”: Stern’s approach would handle a formal poetry reading by a poet like Jaap Blonk only with difficulty. But the derogation of “immediate action” presents a more significant challenge, and whereas interanimations of poet and hearers, as they are heard in the archive, have been the focus here, we will leave antics to the imagination and conclude with one of many instances in which impact and action inhere in utter rejection of (in Goffman’s terms) “constituent statements…tak[ing] their warrant from their role in attesting to the truth, truth appearing as something to be cultivated and developed from a distance, coolly.”40 Tracie Morris performs at little or no distance, and hotly: a musical poet, sound artist, and vocalist with a close relation to conceptualist poetics, trained in theories of speech acts. “I never take requests,” she ironically told a recent audience after ninety minutes of performance responding to the ambient sociality of the room. This remark came in response to her host’s distinct call, from the second row of the audience, requesting that she perform “Africa(n)” as an encore. “Africa(n)” is a quasi-improvised chant of a single digitally audio-sampled sentence of official historicism about the Middle Passage, its words then stuttered, jumbled, repeated and deformed. Its one line is: “It all started when we were brought here as slaves from Africa” – a recorded utterance once performed by actor Geoffrey Holder in what Morris calls an “Afro-Shakespearian” voice, stentorian and didactic. Morris politely declined to end the evening with “Africa[n]” as encore, preferring “The Mrs. Gets Her Ass Kicked,” a piece about domestic violence. Earlier the same day, in the same room although it was then configured as a seminar, she had participated in a session with students and others on genocide in which the conversation had turned from the representational strategies supporting the will to bear witness to the linguistic problems of survivors of trauma-inducing acts of violence generally. Many of those who had participated in the discussion a few hours earlier were in the audience at the reading, including the host. Now, in the act of improvising from a scripted, oft-performed poem about spousal rape, Morris began to “hear in my throat” (as she later put it) the rhythms of the piece declined – an aural return of the repressed. Well into “The Mrs.”41 she began to beat her fist against the top of her sternum, such that it affected the movement of her vocal chords and her breathing, creating an irreducible percussive sound at the bottom of each of the other vocal sounds. The painful faltered cadence of “Africa(n)”42 begins to enter “The Mrs.” and we hear as the poet hears the semantic relationship between the two pieces – contemporary domestic sexual trauma and historical international genocide – in the doubled embodied sound she is making. The encore became a convergence of the two, an iterative feedback of socio-ambient interanimations, an improvised immediate action yet “formal” in every sense – hot, non-distant, but formal: what Morris in her prose contribution to the anthology I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women calls “sound substitution.”43 “Say[ing] something whose phonetic substance will be impossible to reduce”44 is nonetheless indeed saying something that, as after-effect, is almost entirely paratextual. Its emergence was unique to site and moment, but its preservation makes it available to those who can learn to read traces of both.

  1. Peter Middleton, “The Contemporary Poetry Reading,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 262–99. 

  2. Charles Bernstein, “Making audio visible: The lessons of visual language for the textualization of sound,” Textual Practice 23 (2009), 963. 

  3. The 1981 recording of The Sonnets is available at PennSound: 

  4. Steve Evans, “The Phototextual Braid: First Reflections & Preliminary Definitions,” Jacket2, March 25, 2012: 


  6. For almost all of Armantrout’s poems, the title is derived from a word in the main text. Audiences at her readings learn to expect hearing the titular word. The aurality of the moment of its occurrence is itself a fertile topic for discussion. 

  7. Rae Armantrout, Versed (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 58. 



  10. Evans, “The Phototextual Braid.” 

  11. E.g., PennSound’s media server uses a strict filename protocol so that automated alphabetization of segmented readings are numbered according to the order in which the poems were performed, such that the list of files in the media server for a single reading – its subdirectory – will retain that order despite the various alphabetic titling of the poems. 


  13. In Up Late: American Poetry since 1970, ed. Andrei Codrescu (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1987). 

  14. MSS 420, “Uncollected” series, box 29, folder 48. 


  16. On SpokenWeb, see Annie Murray and Jared Wiercinski, “Looking at archival sound: Enhancing the listening experience in a spoken word archive,” FirstMonday 17 (2 April 2012): Others include critics following Bernstein’s Close Listening (1999), scholars and archivists organized through the High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship project in association with PennSound, etc. 

  17. George Stanitzek, “Texts and Paratexts in Media,” Critical Inquiry 32 (Autumn 2005), 29. 

  18. Stanitzek, 29; he is quoting Adorno, “Bibliographical Musings” (1963) from Notes to Literature, volume 2, 23. 

  19. Jacque Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), 18. 

  20. Stanitzek, “Texts and Paratexts in Media,” 36. 

  21. “I now make two assertions: (1) poetry readings are narcissistic exhibitions devastating to poets, audience, and American poetry; (2) poetry readings are the bet thing that ever happened to poet, audience, and American poetry.” Donald Hall, “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance/Private Art,” The American Scholar 54, 1 (Winter 1985), 71. 

  22. Hall, “The Poetry Reading,” 71. 

  23. Quoted by Hall, “The Poetry Reading,” 71. Emphasis added. 

  24. Hall, “The Poetry Reading,” 71. 

  25. See also Frederick C. Stern, “The Formal Poetry Reading,” TDR 35 (Autumn 1991), 67–84 

  26. Bernstein, Close Listening, 10. 



  29. William Stafford, “Traveling through the Dark,” Traveling through the Dark (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 11. 



  32. Ron Silliman asked Armantrout a question about Stafford’s sentimentality:–4–29–14/Armantrout-Rae_09_on-the-sentimentality-and-overwriting-of-Staffords-poem_Fellows-Brunch_KWH-UPenn_4–29–2014.mp3 

  33. Frederick C. Stern, “The Formal Poetry Reading,” TDR 35 (Autumn 1991), 80. 

  34. Stern, “The Formal Poetry Reading,” 73. 

  35. Jerome Rothenberg, “A Dialogue on Oral Poetry, with William Spanos,” in Pre-Faces & Other Writings (New York: New Directions, 1981), 36. 

  36. Lorenzo Thomas, “Neon Griot,” Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Tuscaloosa, AL: Alabama University Press, 2000), 196. 

  37. Erving Goffman, “The Lecture,” Forms of Talk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 165. 

  38. Goffman, “The Lecture,” 166. 

  39. Stern, “The Formal Poetry Reading,” 74. 

  40. Goffman, “The Lecture,” 165. 



  43. Tracie Morris, “Conceptual Poesis of Silence: Stop and Glottal (Notes on Practice),” I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, eds. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, Vanessa Place (Los Angeles, Les Figues Press, 2012), 389. 

  44. Morris is quoting Fred Moten, “Tonality of Totality,” In the Break (in “Conceptual Poesis of Silence,” I’ll Drown My Book), 391. 

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