Monday, January 31, 2005

Performance versus Paper

Among the outstanding series of Debates, Manifestos and Criticisms over at The Academy of American Poets is one by David Groff on the dangers of poetry readings. He discusses the arguments over whether the popularity of readings is good or bad for poetry, the crux of which is experiencing a poem in performance is so vastly different from experiencing a poem by reading it in private that the success of one has little to do with the success of the other. He has a point; there are poets I enjoy greatly in one form that I struggle to appreciate in the other (Amiri Baraka comes to mind).

Now, since my primary contribution to the arts in my community is the reading series I host, it would be greatly inconsistent with my mission to think that The Spoken Word, as we title our series, does not contribute to the world of "The Written Word". However, I think Groff makes an excellent point when he says "...most harmfully, a public poetry performance usually cannot convey a poem’s form. In a world where the very notion of "poetry" contains multitudes of meanings, only one element separates poetry from other verbal arts: the line. A poem is essentially a collection of words in which the margins matter—yet this basic element is the one thing a poet can seldom convey in a public reading. Listening to a poem, haven’t you longed for the poet to hold it aloft so that you could see its shape on the page?"

He's right on here. Poetry is about form, whether conscious alignment with existing form, bold creation of new form, artistic use of visual form, purposeful avoidance of all form (which is the hardest of all to do well). Hearing a poem aloud should drive you to the page to see what it looks like. More importantly, it should drive you to the page so you can inhabit that poem again yourself through reading, and get the next level of understanding or enjoyment from it.

Then there's the Pinsky mandate to "read it aloud". I do this often. There's a practical piece, of course: selecting writers for the series, I need to have a sense for how the material works aloud. But for me, poetry - on the page or in the ear - must have some kind of music in it. I first concluded this when studying Wallace Stevens for the first time, I've incorporated it into my own work - even though I write mostly narrative, character-driven poems - and I feel more strongly about it then ever, having seen too many poems lately that are so impressed (or preoccupied) with their subject or their style that they ignore the textures of the words they use. The biggest sin here is the acceptance of an OK word when a better one is available (for precision in definition, for alliteration, for dramatic impact, etc.).

I seem to be all over the place on this one. But even though I am a fan and practitioner of writing for the ear, I guess I agree that poems must be successful on the page to be truly successful. I think I'd trade off greatness aloud for greatness on the page.

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