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Amodern 4: The Poetry Series


Some Questions of Definition

Marjorie Perloff

Is there such a thing as “The Poetry Reading Series”? In their excellent introduction to this issue of Amodern, Jason Camlot and Christine Mitchell pose two questions: “First, what is a poetry series? Second, what was The Poetry Series?” Their response – and that of their contributors – to the second question is as exciting as it is comprehensive. The authors describe the poetry series in question, which took place on the campus of Sir George Williams University (SGWU), now Concordia University, in downtown Montreal from 1966-74 – a series originally tape recorded with the then limited technology, and stored somewhat arbitrarily in reel-to-reel tape boxes – a set that has now been carefully and expertly digitized, documented, and archived, making it a model for what future scholars of the poetry reading will be able to do. Using advanced digital and bibliographical technique, scholars like Camlot and Mitchell, Darren Wershler, Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein, Deanna Fong, Steve Evans, Kenneth Goldsmith and many others are now creating a whole new field that has already transformed the study of literature as we know it.

The editors’ brief discussion of their first question – “what is a poetry series?” – is, to my mind, somewhat less satisfactory. True, Camlot and Mitchell refer to “meta-level questions” such as: “how should poetry reading series be critically examined? how do individual readings relate to the whole series, and how do individual poems relate to a reading in its entirety? what is the organizing principle of the series – the calendar, the school semester, the funding season, the organizers’ whim, “set theory”? what range of tools – methodological, critical, digital – might literary scholars and historians use to examine poetry series?” But these questions – especially that of “organizing principle” – are somewhat slighted in the essays that follow. I want here, then, to look at some of the thorny issues that relate to choice, inclusion, and the organization of “the poetry series.”

Let me begin by describing a recent poetry reading I attended. The place was the campus of Shanghai Normal University in the heart of downtown Shanghai, the occasion the third convention of the Chinese/American Association for Poetry and Poetics (CAAP), of which I serve, more or less honorifically, as President and Charles Bernstein as Vice-President. The reading was held on Dec. 18, 2014, from 7.30 to 9 PM. The moderators were listed in the program as Charles Bernstein, Wang Zhuo and Zhang Guangkui, the latter two being Professors of Poetry at neighboring universities. Refreshments were served, including wine, beer, and soft drinks. The large classroom was packed. There was much coming-and-going, much background noise from the hall outside as well as loud whispering inside.

The CAAP reading was certainly what Jason Camlot and Darren Wershler call, in their “Theses on Discerning the Reading Series,” a “formal event.” Participation was open but depended upon prior sign-up; the organizers distributed a printed schedule, and each poet was allowed a maximum of five minutes. The readers included some local poets and a number of symposiasts from as far as Estonia, the U.S. and Canada (the only name I recognized being that of Tan Lin, who gave a very witty conceptualist reading of restaurant reviews on Yelp). Most of the participants (evenly divided between male and female) were students who had attended CAAP and were evidently taking classes in Anglophone poetry. Certain student readers had a cheering section in the audience. Some read in Chinese and then read a translation of their own poem, some had written their poems in English, some talked about authors they admired (I heard the name Jonathan Swift mentioned), some read famous poems they especially like (e.g. Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific,” Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”), both in the original and in translation, but the English versions included so much mispronunciation and error that it was difficult for someone like myself, who doesn’t know Chinese, to follow. Brian Reed, a contributor to this issue (“Somewhere Bluebirds Fly”) and a leading scholar-critic of new and experimental poetries, had the same reaction. All in all, what one heard was hardly “poetry” in any sense of the word, but rather a series of short, rambling discourses, some making claims to be poems, some more accurately statements of homage to their mentors and enthusiasm for the whole process of getting up in front of an audience and reading or reciting something – anything. The students seemed to enjoy the occasion, although many of them left the room the minute their turn was over. Applause throughout was very generous, and there was much laughter, cheer, and raising of glasses.

Strictly speaking, the Shanghai reading certainly belongs to the genre of The Poetry Series, as defined by Camlot and Wershler. It is “a complex discursive assemblage . . . circulat[ing] bodies, texts, objects, affects, aesthetics and ideologies through [a] particular place.” Again, the reading was part of “a serial event where people gather to present literary work to each other, usually but not necessarily oral (read, sung, screened, played, exchanged or otherwise performed).” And this reading certainly had a “formal structure,” as planned by the organizers, who arranged the sequence and enforced the five-minute limit, and it was designed for a particular audience from the CAAP conference. Further, one could argue, such a reading does have a relationship to the State: it is, evidently, a small but useful way for the Chinese government to show its distinguished visitors what Chinese students can do, how well versed (pardon the pun) they are in English and American literature, and, conversely, to expose the locals to a great American poet (Charles Bernstein) as well as to U.S. poetry critics such as Brian Reed and myself. So the “self-improvement,” which the editors speak of, is at least potentially present. Cultural Capital has been generated. And the whole event can be called, in the words of the editors, “an affect-distribution centre powered by social circulation.”

At the same time – and this is just common sense – such poetry readings may have unsuspected side effects. To witness an event like the Shanghai CAAP reading – and I have attended countless similar readings over the years – is to begin to wonder if there is such a thing as “poetry,” and, if so, what it’s worth. Certainly it is not a matter of defamiliarized sound: most of what we heard was just ordinary prose, perhaps lineated, perhaps not. Second, the endless clichés, banalities, vapid sentiments, and well-worn ideas expressed made one long for access to the internet, where a click or two could provide more interesting, informational, provocative, and distinctive discourse. The Poetry Series may well be a cultural index: from an anthropological perspective, it teaches us a number of important things about national, ethnic, and gender relationships, about power structures, the creation of community, and so on. As social events, this and similar readings are often very successful, bringing together like-minded people and thus creating new friendships and alliances. Those who later attend, not the live reading but the recorded session of the event, may have similar reactions, even if at one remove.

But what about – forgive the old-fashioned term – the poetic value of the reading series? The expertise and sophistication of digital recording technology and of the archiving of poetry readings, described in so many of the essays in this issue, has somehow not made much impact on the potential audience for poetry. On the contrary, never since 1965, when I held my first teaching position, have universities offered fewer courses on poetry; never before have students (unless they are in the Creative Writing Program) been less interested in the actual study of poetry, past and present. And in recent years, I hear colleagues and students, some of them even Creative Writing instructors and majors, say, “I can’t stand poetry readings.” Let me confess that I have come to feel that way myself. Somehow, the Reading Series has become a chore and a bore, affecting our very relationship to poetics. Indeed, when I was last in Brazil, Augusto de Campos, himself a major poet and superb performer, when asked which contemporary poets he admired, said somewhat sheepishly, “You know, Marjorie, I no longer like poetry.”

What can this possibly mean? Has the proliferation of poetry readings and the accessibility of recordings and You Tube productions created a situation in which familiarity breeds contempt? Is it that we don’t like to avail ourselves of what is so readily available? Has the poetry reading series, so significant at the time when SGWU produced the series that is our occasion here – a series that, as the editors here tell us, helped “to define a Canadian national literature in relation to American poetics” – now become merely routine?

Yes and no. On the positive side: the migration of poetry series from memory and print summary to its digital status is, as so many of the essays here demonstrate, a milestone for historical and archival research. How Canadian poetry developed, whether in Montreal or Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver, vis-à-vis U.S. and UK poetry, in the second half of the twentieth century, can now be fully documented and studied. In a similar vein, the site PennSound (discussed by Al Filreis, Steve Evans, and others above) has transformed the study of poetry, it now being possible, to take just one example, to study the entire recorded oeuvre of Ezra Pound, brilliantly curated by Richard Sieburth, and thus come to a new understanding of and appreciation for Pound’s poetry from the early Imagist works to the late Cantos and the Confucian Odes. It also allows us to study the changing reception of existing poems: as Al Filreis points out in his essay, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl! becomes a different text over the course of time: the older Ginsberg, reacting to an audience quite familiar with the poem, reads Howl quite differently from the way he read it the first time at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.

From the perspective of the archive, then – and so many of the essays included here discuss the methodologies and challenges of the archive – the new technology has created nothing short of a revolution in the way poetry is preserved, disseminated, and studied. And of course not just what we traditionally call poetry. When I used to teach Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the late seventies, I had to rent the film Smithson made about its construction and supplement that film with books and catalogues from the library’s rare book collection. Now I just send students to UbuWeb, where and related websites provide them with more than enough information to study this and related Smithson works. Indeed, Kenneth Goldsmith’s UbuWeb is itself a work of art, assembling and juxtaposing as it does those art crystals that shed light on avant-garde creation in the larger sense. Listen to Marinetti intoning Zang Tuum Tumb (1914) and compare it to Roman Jakobson reading Klebhnikov’s “The Grasshopper.” Provided, of course, they know any Italian or Russian.

And there’s the rub. The information industry is so far ahead of the acquisition of knowledge and critical judgment that “poetry” is rapidly becoming something one does rather than something one could know. In our culture, anyone can be a poet. Many recent studies show that the number of people now writing and even publishing poetry far exceeds those who ever read it. Indeed, increasingly, as we all know, literary study at the university has been relegated to the sidelines – a little feel-good and relaxation to entertain engineers and computer scientists when they are taking breaks from their “real” work. Consider the description of the new English and Computer Science major, my own university, Stanford (which was also Jason Camlot’s PhD granting university) instituted this year:

Left-brained, right-brained, techie, fuzzy – these are less and less terms for the world or for life. Stanford is excited to be launching a new CS+English joint major for students who want to think across the divide and create projects that fuse science and the humanities. Increasingly, groundbreaking work in literary studies is being done through technology; simultaneously, the world of computer engineering thrives on the creativity and adaptability taught in literature departments.

Whatever the new CS+English major may involve, it clearly cuts in at least half the number of actual literature courses students formerly took to fulfill the major. And the courses that go are almost inevitably those in English Literature of earlier centuries as well as literature in other languages. Poetry – indeed all literature – becomes mere grist for the “creativity” mill, providing exemplars that will make this or that techie project more fun.

In this climate, the heavy emphasis in this issue of Amodern on how to – how best to capture oral performance on MP3s or again, how to process the necessary data, how to archive the collection and digitize printed books – such emphasis on technicity skirts a crucial – perhaps the crucial issue about The Reading Series: namely, the question of – forgive the old-fashioned term – value. When Marcel Duchamp, writing his anonymous editorial for The Blind Man in 1917, justified “R. Mutt’s” choice of a urinal as a work of art to be submitted to the Salon of the Independents, he explained that “Fountain” wasn’t just any object to be found in a plumbing supply store; that, on the contrary, the artist “chose it.” The same holds true for the curator of The Poetry Series: what choices does that curator make? What is the aesthetic that animates a given Poetry Series?

On this topic, the otherwise excellent essays in this collection are largely silent. Indeed, the SGWU Poetry Series (1965-74), so carefully re-recorded for SpokenWeb, and so valuable from a historical perspective, is nothing if not problematic from an aesthetic perspective. It includes many then countercultural poets still famous today like Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley. But of the sixty-plus poets recorded, there are at least twenty whose names I do not so much as recognize – poets whose work has largely disappeared from the scene. That fact might lead to interesting analysis: what is it about George Oppen that has made his poetry attain canonical status, whereas Maxine Gadd and F. R. Scott are among the disappeared. The answer to such questions would demand value judgments –judgments literary scholars are increasingly reluctant to make. Race, gender, ethnicity: these are the factors commentators on the SGWU series have taken into account. But beyond identity politics, what were the criteria for inclusion? And if we can’t name those criteria, can’t define at least provisionally what makes a given text a “poem” in the first place, what claims can we make for disseminating the Reading Series?

This is not the place to answer these large and vexing questions, but there are two more specific and modest issues we can perhaps address. The first has to do with what I take to be the central distinction between poets who are essentially performers and whose work cannot be absorbed on the page alone –poets, that is to say, for whom the written text is more score than text – and those who are primarily writers of texts to be read on the page but who also give poetry readings – readings which earn them some renown as well as money and allow them to create new networks and travel opportunities. The first performance group which can be traced back, so far as recordings go, to Kurt Schwitters and Alexei Kruschenykh, includes such poets as John Cage, David Antin, bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Tracie Morris, and Caroline Bergvall. Surely it is no coincidence that the two excellent essays in this collection that analyze actual poems performed in the course of the SGWU series – Michael Nardone’s “Listen! Listen! Listen!” and Brian Reed’s “Somewhere Bluebirds Fly” – are both devoted to Jackson Mac Low, a performance poet who cannot be understood from his writing alone – a poet whose posthumous reputation (he died in 2004) depends on sound recording.

The case of John Cage’s readings (Cage was not in the SGWU series) would be even more compelling: works like Mureau and Roaratorio depend in large measure on the poet’s voice, timing, timbre, and pitch. Indeed, since Cage’s death in 1994, his admirers and critics have been hotly debating whether or not his written texts can be performed by others. Robert Wilson, himself a great artist, recently tried to create a performance of “Lecture on Nothing.” The results were decidedly mixed and, at best, the resulting performance was Wilson’s rather than Cage’s. Who but Cage himself can read such mesostic texts as “What you say . . . ” (for Jasper Johns)? The solution seems to be to rely on recordings; then again, Cage himself repeatedly expressed his dislike of all recorded music and poetry, so that there seems to be no satisfactory solution.

At the opposite end of the spectrum we have what Roland Barthes called “writerly” poets – poets who sit down to write their poems and only then consider the oral performance of the finished product. Most poets fall into this category: from Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams to Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, right down to Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Peter Gizzi, Robert Hass, Harryette Mullen, and Charles Wright – most poets remain page-based, even if the page is now a screen.

There are, of course, borderline cases: Ezra Pound was a great performer as are today Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Nathaniel Mackey, to mention only three poets who do write primarily for the page but add a whole new dimension to the text when they perform their work. But most writerly poets – which is to say, 90% of all poets – don’t especially profit from oral (much less, videated) rendition. Williams, for example, was a curiously inert reader, whose locutions give us little index to the marvelous visual design of his poems. And although O’Hara joked about his poems replacing phone calls, he somehow reads them with a nasal Boston twang that underplays their marvelous wit and word play: I would much rather read than hear them. As for Ashbery, every poetry student wants to go to at least one of his readings so as to see the GREAT MAN live, but many of us find the readings themselves (and there are now at least twenty available on YouTube) curiously limp. Al Filreis makes a valiant case for the difference discernible from one reading to another. “The future of critical responses to John Ashbery’s poetry,” he writes, “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).” But why would “the future of critical responses” depend on these or any recordings rather than on the texts themselves? It takes many readings and much research to take on the complexity of Ashbery’s puns, metaphors, and allusions: his is a poetry demanding a hermeneutic response. And that response, I would argue contra Filreis, depends upon reading rather than listening. Indeed, punctuation, available to the reader but not the listener, is as central to Ashbery’s poetics as it is to Gertrude Stein’s.

The most necessary Poetry Series, then, would be one featuring performative poetry. Writerly poets often try to make up for their limited vocal appeal by framing their poems with anecdotes. At a 2013 reading at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, for example, Mark Ford introduced a new poem called “Adrift” with an anecdote about a letter he received from Colonel Kaddafi’s widow, asking him for financial help. When Ford noted that, no doubt, others got similar letters, the audience laughed, but the poem itself is dark and denunciatory, deploring our current global politics. Such protocol can become tedious quite quickly, the poem itself somehow never quite living up to the promise of the prefatory anecdote.

A second issue that might have been taken up in these essays is that of the group versus the solo reading. In their “Theses,” under the heading “Why is Studying the Reading Series Worthwhile?” Camlot and Wershler argue that “The reading series is a ground against which writers, collectives, books, magazines and other cultural objects emerge.” And again, “Establishing a ‘community’ includes setting the boundaries of exclusion and the establishment of internal hierarchies.” Both of these propositions are accurate and important, but what the editors don’t say is that the “boundaries of exclusion” and “establishment of internal hierarchies” can work for ill as easily as for good.

Once upon a time, in the earlier twentieth century, readings were one-man (less often one-woman) affairs. In 1933, T. S. Eliot came to America and read to a packed stadium at the University of Virginia. On her American tour in 1934-35, Gertrude Stein gave readings in thirty-seven cities, criss-crossing the entire country. And as late as the 1970s, Robert Lowell gave a long solo reading at the Library of Congress in Washington. Today, no doubt, each of the above would be reading with at least one other person, usually the less-well known poet reading first so as not to lose the audience for the whole event. Indeed, today the group reading is the most common type, the reductio ad absurdum being reached by the MLA “offsite” readings of the past decade or two. At MLA, anyone can sign up to participate, and the alphabetical format, created by the organizers, has included (e.g., 2011) as many as seventy people reading @ 3 minutes each. The reading thus becomes something of an endurance test for the audience as well as the participating poets, many of whom are only in the room for the minutes when their alphabet cluster is being called.

What is the point? To listen to some of these readings is to despair. Is this what you call poetry? Is this the “ground against which . . . cultural objects emerge”? If I came from Mars and walked into the room where the MLA offsite reading was being held, what would I think I was hearing? And why does everyone want to be a poet? Want to be the thing no one in the larger world cares about? Cultural Capital, anyone?

The SGWU poetry series, which is the occasion of these reflections, provides us with some answers. Though part of a series, each reading is individual and on a different date, and to scan the list is to see, for example, how many first-class Canadian poets emerged from the “ground” of fairly routine work: bpNichol, bill bissett, and Robin Blaser, to cite just three. And the one-at-a-time format made it possible to avoid the “sitting-through” that is so excruciating at, say, the MLA readings or the Shanghai reading with which I began. There is, I conclude, no such thing as The Reading; there are only readings, as variable as the poems that are read at each given event and no better than the individuals participating.

No genre, I would submit, is valuable as such; no genre – not even the reading series – should thus be fetishized. Choice, the principle of selection – and here the curator comes in – is central. Which is why the distinction between curator and artist is rapidly breaking down, even as the role of the Reading Series critic will be to provide, not just support for the technology feats involved, but also critique of their substance.

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