Close Listening and the Performed Word,
edited by Charles Bernstein.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Among the many interesting books on contemporary poetry that appeared in 1998, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, edited by poet and theorist Charles Bernstein, stands out as particularly notable. The performance of poetry, writes Bernstein in his introduction, is as old as poetry itself, but critics of modern and postmodern poetry often put this aside. The essays in this book investigate how poetry in the twentieth century is practiced as performance art. Although most of the essays discuss contemporary poetry (by American poets such as Amiri Baraka, David Antin, Jackson Mac Low, and Clark Coolidge), some essays focus attention on the history of the poetry reading in modern poetic and oral traditions as well as in different social groups and different cultures. Bernstein points to the fact that performing poetry, in readings and oral interpretations, effects the poem’s meaning. The performative dimension of poetry is connected with visual and conceptual art for which text is also important, and, to the same extent, with visual poetry, where the performative and material dimension of the literary text enter into the visual space.
Bernstein writes: “The poetry reading, considered along with typographic, holographic, and contextual variants, modulates and deepens what [Jerome] McGann calls the ‘textual condition.’ The poetry reading extends the patterning of poetry into another dimension, adding another semantic layer to the poem’s multiformity.” It is usually thought that writing stabilizes and fixes oral traditions. Bernstein writes that when authors read their poems, the reading should be understood as destabilizing poetic practices that emphasize fluidity and plurality of forms, that emphasize, as Bernstein writes, the poem’s “pluriformity.” The poetry reading should not be understood as a secondary extension of “prior” written texts, but as its own medium. According to Bernstein, the upper limit of performance poetry is music, realized in sound poetry, and lower limit is silence, realized in visual poetry.
The book consists of three parts: “Sound’s Measure,” “Performing Words,” and “Close Reading / Historical Settings.” The most notable of the essays in the first part is Nick Piombino’s “The Aural Ellipsis and the Nature of Listening in Contemporary Poetry.” With the term “aural ellipsis,” Piombino points to the use of sounds regardless of their ordinary usage and meaning. Using psychoanalytical terms, he investigates poetry by Jackson Mac Low, Clark Cooledge, Fiona Templton, and others. Piombino starts with the definition of “transitional object” or “transitional phenomena” by British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott. According to Winnicott, these terms signify “intermediate areas of experience, between the thumb and the teddy bear, between the oral eroticism and projection of what has already been introduced.” Piombino argues that the contemporary poem functions similarly, as a mode of providing a holding environment makes that it possible for the reader to hold on to the poem imaginatively and to let go of it at the same time, thereby enhancing the listener’s associative filling-in of elliptical gaps (the aural ellipsis). The poetry reading, for Piombino, is important for contemporary poetic evolution, because the full effect of the poem is experienced when it is read aloud, within the context of the group of people for whom it is written. He argues that the oral and video presentation of poetry are as important as poetry on the printed page.
In his essay “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Information,” Bruce Andrews investigates the development of poetry and music, and the relation of their usage of sounds. Johanna Drucker, in her “Visual Performance of the Poetic Text” discusses visual performance in poetic work. She writes: “In the course of the twentieth century visual performances of poetic works have taken many forms: from early experiments with figured verse, orchestral scoring, painted and collaged works that characterize the early decades, to works in which compositional strategies and process provide the motivation for visual form, as in work of the later decades.” After mid-century, she points out, an interesting shift takes place, “the shift from attention to form to process and concept as the primary force of poetic composition.”
In the third part of the book, Lorenzo Thomas’ “Neon Griot: The Functional Role of Poetry Reading in the Black Arts Movement” is interesting. Thomas emphasizes that the development of the Black Arts Movement was influenced by models of African-American music, especially jazz, as well as the interest in finding an authentic African American speech that could be used in poetry. Writing on poetry by Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Ntozake Shange, he points to the important relation between poetry and theater and the similarities in structure and imagery in Black theater and poetry.
Steve McCaffery’s essay “Voice in Extermis” discusses the acoustic values of poetry in futurism, dada, concretism, and the Canadian sound poetry group “The Four Horsemen” with which he worked in the seventies. He uses the theories of Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, and Georges Bataille in interpreting sound poetry, reconstructing its history in terms of these theoreticians. For example, McCaffery writes: “speaking in tongues, zaum, and the Dada sound poem commonly retain the simulacra of a semiosis.” Or: “The sense evoked is of Barthes’s vocal granulation pushed beyond all connection to language, as vocal emissions without meaning whose closest proximity is to a “death of language.” The section also contains interesting essays by Bob Perelman and Peter Quartermain.
The third, and last, part of the book includes “Understanding the Sound of Not Understanding” by Jed Rasula, “The Contemporary Poetry Reading” by Peter Middleton” “Local Vocals: Hawai’i’s Pidgin Literature, Performance, and Postcoloniality” by Susan Schultz, “Letter on Sound” by Susan Stewart, “After Free Verse: The New Nonlinear Poetries” by Marjorie Perloff, “Ether Either, III” by Susan Howe, “Toward a Poetics of Polyphony and Translatability” by Dennis Tedlock, “Was That ‘Different’, ‘Dissident’ or ‘Dissonant’? Poetry (in) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions” by Maria Damon, and “Afterward: Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry Reading” by Ron Silliman.
It is interesting that most of the authors are poets (Piombino, Andrews, Howe, Drucker, McCaffery, Dennis Tedlock, Rasula, Thomas, Silliman). Just as poetry, as a performed genre, breaks boundaries and extends itself towards musicality, visuality, and theatricality, so the poets as theoreticians break with the strict division of functions (poet, critic, and theorist as different and separated practitioners). The poets become writers, critics, theoreticians, and performers.
— Dubravka Djuric