Book history and the poetry reading
Over the past decade, it has become increasingly common to hear poetry scholars devoting more attention to the phenomenon of the poetry reading in both its live and recorded formats. Depending on the interests of the particular critic, these discussions usually fall into one of two categories: viewing the reading as an extension of the textual history of the work being performed or viewing the event itself as a site of collective agency, as the audience participates in giving meaning to the work being performed.
In Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry, Peter Middleton asks, “What is the point of ordinary poetry readings in contemporary culture? What accounts for their popularity even when poets read material of such verbal complexity that only the cumulative intensities of silent reading would seem likely to do the texts justice?” For Middleton, the answer lies in a combination of the spectacle of witnessing the performance of authorship and the allure of experiencing what he calls “collective events,” by which he means that an intersubjectivity between audience and poet is created in the act of performance. That intersubjectivity subsequently becomes a fundamental element of the textual history of the performed work.
Surprisingly, however, critics like Middleton rarely analyze actual poetry readings, and they even less frequently include the experience of audience members to provide a glimpse of what the experience means to them. For these reasons, I propose that scholars of contemporary poetry would be well served by adopting methodologies from the field of book history and performing ethnographic studies of actual poetry reading audiences.
A September 13, 2007, reading by the poets Bernadette Mayer and Lee Ann Brown at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House illustrates the sort of cultural work that poetry readings can do, pointing out just how complex the relationship between poet and audience can be to the degree that in this case it temporarily breaks down and audience members become part of the performance itself. Eschewing the traditional format in which the younger poet reads first — usually for a shorter period of time, much like the opening act at a concert — Mayer and Brown trade off, each reading one poem at a time. This structure resembles the way poets Clark Coolidge and Michael Gizzi would often stage joint readings, a structure Coolidge and Gizzi acknowledged stemmed from the concept of jazz musicians stepping forth to trade solos. Mayer was good friends with both Coolidge and Gizzi and had staged innovative readings with Coolidge in the past. During an event at the Poetry Project in New York on February 24, 1971, for example, which was billed as a reading featuring Mayer and Coolidge, audience members were treated to a film of Mayer and Coolidge chasing one another around Coolidge’s house while reading from the work of Gertrude Stein, with both poets often off camera. A few turns into the their 2007 reading, Mayer and Brown deviate from their established structure when Mayer reads a poem requested by audience member CAConrad. The poem is Mayer’s “Sonnet (You jerk you didn’t call me up),” and she dedicates the poem to Conrad, to whom she refers by first name. After reading the poem, Mayer playfully notes, “We also have the jerk here,” and asks if Conrad wants to read the poem as well. Before launching into a relatively inspired reading of the poem, Conrad says, “You have to imagine twelve — not two or three — twelve electric guitars. There’s this whole thing I have planned for this one day.” Initially an audience member, Conrad becomes part of the performance itself in much the same way that an audience member might sit in with a jazz band for a particular number. In doing so, he takes the nontraditional reading format a step further in reimagining the piece as a sort of performance art rock opera.
The intertexts are thick in this brief interlude. First, there is the nod to Coolidge and Gizzi and their roots in jazz performance. There is the undoing of the standard format in which the older, more established poet serves as a headlining act, a move that highlights the symbiotic aspect of Mayer and Brown’s working relationship. Then there is the sense of poetic lineage on display, Mayer’s feminist critique of the sonnet tradition expanded in this case to include Conrad as an audience member and serving as a nod to the overtly queer content of many of his own poems. My interpretation of the event is informed by personal knowledge of all three parties involved and my own experience as an audience member, but the performance can be taken as a microcosm of what generally happens at poetry readings. The reality of poetry readings is that the majority of audience members are simultaneously producers and consumers of poetic texts, even if they consider themselves amateur rather than professional producers. The moment during Mayer and Brown’s reading in which the barriers between audience, performer, and text breaks down exemplifies the sort of generative community that is formed at such events. The dense intertexts in this moment also suggest the need to pay closer critical attention to these communities.
The sociology of reading
The fields of book history and poetry studies have rarely been paired, largely because their respective trajectories have led them in opposing directions. In its early years, the field of book history was primarily concerned with the evolution of dominant literary forms, relegating poetry to the fringes of literary activity. Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) traces the relationship between the rise of a general reading public and the emergence of the novel in eighteenth-century England. According to Watt, the novel’s “formal realism” was the primary reason for its ascent. Watt argues that “the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience,” giving the genre “an obligation to satisfy its reader with such details of the story […] which are presented through a more largely referential use of language than is common in other literary forms.” This generic feature, which could alternatively be defined as the process through which the language of popular culture became increasingly transparent, both supplied and shaped the demands of an emerging reading public.
The Rise of the Novel is important not only because it was one of the most thorough early studies of this phenomenon, but also — and perhaps more importantly for my purposes here — because its title symbolically fixed the novel as the dominant literary form. If the novel has “risen,” it seems logical to surmise that it has done so at the expense of other literary forms and genres. The “verbal complexity” that Middleton notes in much contemporary poetry seems to have no place amid the “more largely referential use of language” that Watt claims characterizes the dominance of the novel. Watt, of course, has not been the only scholar to tell this story, but this is neither the time nor the place to give a complete account of the novel’s ascent to near ubiquity. Rather, I bring up the rise of the novel in order to turn to a genre that seems to have been all but forgotten in the wake of that rise: lyric poetry. My concern here could be rephrased as a modified version of the Peter Middleton question with which I opened this essay: what is the point of poetry in contemporary society? The answer might be found in looking more closely at poetry’s reception.
The most interesting recent scholarship in the history of the book has been oriented around what is generally called the sociology of reading, on the sociological factors that contribute to the selection of specific leisure reading subjects or genres or on excavating the reading habits of various subaltern social groups. Often, these studies pair a singular group with an equally singular genre, such as Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents: Dime-Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (1998), or Janice Radway’s study of the female readers of romance novels in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1991). In almost every case, however, the reading material focused on is prose fiction, and most often it is some form of popular fiction. What these scholars often find is that “conservative texts [can] make plebian readers militant and articulate.” While not discounting the immense import of this work, I cannot help but ask one question: why are scholars who are interested in the sociology of reading not focusing on radical readings of radical texts, namely, audience receptions of contemporary poetry?
To sketch an answer this question, it is worth looking at a useful corrective to another burgeoning field in literary criticism: cultural studies. In “What’s Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of Humanities in an Age of Cultural Studies,” Charles Bernstein interrogates the role of aesthetics in the changing face of the academy in the mid-1990s. Bernstein does not oppose the practice of cultural studies; in fact, he claims, “The gradual shift from literary studies to cultural and multicultural studies is probably the most useful change within the American academy in the past decade.” At the same time, however, he critiques the limitations of this shift, particularly the sense that the works themselves often play second fiddle to the critic’s particular methodology:
My point is not to relegate criticism or literary theory to secondary status. […] Rather, I am insisting that art not be reduced to secondary status, the “object” of critical projection, but understood as an irreplaceable method of interpreting culture, including other artworks — “poetry as discourse” in Antony Easthope’s useful formation.
My concerns here are very similar to Bernstein’s. I am not against the study of the sociology of reading; as I hinted at before, I consider it to be one of the most fruitful recent developments in the field of literary studies. At the same time, however, the fact that book history and poetry studies have tended to ignore one another is a huge loss to both fields. My goal here is to take a small step toward uniting the two.
Poetry and the public sphere
Both conservative and radical critics alike have written on the decline of poetry, but their work often sounds more like lament than serious critical engagement with the social forces behind that decline. The archetypal works from the conservative side of the field are Vernon Shetley’s After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (1993) and Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992). These two works, especially Shetley’s, treat the “difficulty” of contemporary poetry as an abhorrent symptom of modernity that can only be treated by a return to lucidity, which would in turn make poetry more relevant to contemporary society. Conservative critics like Shetley and Gioia are not the only ones who fall into the general trap of lamenting poetry’s decline. In The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present, for example, Jerome McGann, who generally champions a much more aesthetically radical group of poets than both Shetley and Gioia, criticizes what he sees as “a poetic deficit in contemporary culture, where values of politics and morality are judged prima facie more important than aesthetic values.” In short, critics from both sides of the aesthetic divide end up sounding very similar — and similarly limited — on this issue.
Adrienne Rich (left) and Tomomi Adachi (right) in performance at Kelly Writers House (in 2005 and 2010, respectively).
Most poets and readers of poetry are not only well aware of the marginal status of their shared activity, but also romanticize that very marginality. The late Lorenzo Thomas makes a very similar suggestion in his discussion of the importance of poetry readings in African American literary traditions:
Thousands of people may, in fact, participate in weekly reading circles or in poetry workshops that meet weekly at branch libraries or in members’ homes, but none of them thinks that their chosen leisure activity carries the same level of societal acceptance as, say, bowling. Most of these people, of course, would be disappointed if it did.
The truth is, however, that people do listen to poetry, even if the group that does so makes up a very small minority of the general reading public. These listeners view poetry as an alternative-space, a space in which they can — if only for a brief period of time — exist outside the confines of dominant popular culture. An interest in poetry gives those who hold that interest access to a sort of imaginary community, a community that often extends beyond geographical bounds and that — for its members, if not for the culture at large — carries an immense amount of cultural capital.
As the antithesis of lamenting poetry’s continued marginalization, Hank Lazer’s “The People’s Poetry” (2004) views the contemporary scene as an “era of radically democratized poetry,” which Lazer claims opens the door to a large number of subversive reading and writing practices. He gives a relatively lengthy list of the various communities in which these practices take place:
the slam scene (which now includes a very popular Broadway show, Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam), the many open-microphone events in nearly every American city, the therapy groups that rely on journals and poems as essential modes of self-expression and healing, the hundreds of creative-writing programs in American colleges and universities, poetry programs in numerous elementary, middle, and secondary schools, poetry programs in prisons, poetry connected to various religious practices (whether the new translation of core religious texts or new devotional writings), poetry for senior citizens, poetry as part of the process of recovering from abuse, and so on.
I have quoted Lazer’s list in its entirety to show both the breadth of poetry’s reach in contemporary society and to show that its reach transcends barriers of class, race, gender, and age. Maria Damon refers to these occasions as “micropoetries,” a term that encapsulates both their marginality and self-sufficiency.
A brief anecdote from my own experience might help illustrate the effect that poetry can have within these various communities. When I was in graduate school, I helped found a Writers in the Schools program whose mission was to bring innovative writing curricula to inner city schools. A group of local poets and writers went into community and educational centers, taught classes on creative reading and writing, hosted public readings, and organized publications of student writing. I worked at a GED prep site for teenage mothers, most of whom were Puerto Rican immigrants. A few years after I left the area, one of my former students sent me an email saying that ever since my class she had been active on the local spoken word scene, that she was recently working in a recording studio on a CD of her work, and that she wanted to know my new address so she could send me a copy of the CD. This was a student who had never written a poem prior to my sessions. She claims that reading the poetry of African American and Latino women, work by people with as difficult and marginalized lives as hers, gave her the tremendous feeling that she too could produce something that would have an equivalent effect on another reader. I have related this particular incident not to brag about the successes of my former students, but rather to show that for many marginalized members of society the discovery of poetry gives them a great sense of agency, so much that consumers of poetic texts often transform into producers of poetic texts.
The problem, Lazer claims, is that “[a]esthetic-differences often splinter these groups into reader-writer islands that have very little to do with one another. […] Such a diversity of practice makes it almost impossible to say what poetry is good or bad without first asking such questions as, for whom? for what uses?” While Lazer’s emphasis on the democratization of poetry is commendable, his stance is compromised by its emphasis on aesthetic value and preference for more elite forms of poetry. He praises the film 8 Mile (2002) for giving “young listeners a visceral experience of the vitality of poetry,” but it is clear that he has little knowledge of — or experience with — the sort of work portrayed in the film. Instead, Lazer presents the “poetry-rap” (Lazer’s term) on display in the film as a starter kit for more academic forms of performance-based poetry, particularly the “important Socratic inquiry” of David Antin’s work, most of which pre-dates that featured in 8 Mile. In short, even the most well-meaning poetry critics tend to be out of touch with the times and dogged by personal preferences. Lazer’s analysis would have been well served if he had sat down with the young listeners of 8 Mile to gain an understanding of the uses to which they are putting that visceral experience. The very fact that people do listen to poetry, and that they consider the act of doing so to be an alternative to participating in dominant cultural forms, means that these groups should be seriously studied. We should not only be asking what are they reading or listening to, but how are they reading or listening to it. What role does poetry play in shaping or giving meaning to their experiences?
Bibliography and the poetry reading
Poets have long been aware of the languishing importance of their practice to popular culture at large. In a 1949 symposium at the University of California–Berkeley, for example, Jack Spicer begins with the question, “Why is no one here? Who is listening to us? […] If we were actors or singers or cartoonists of the same relative talent, a sizable number of the students at this University would recognize our names and be familiar with our work.” His answer: “Live poetry is a kind of singing. It differs from prose, as song does, in its complexity of stress and intonation. Poetry demands a human voice to sing it and an audience to hear it. Without these it is naked […] and incomplete — a bore.” A year later, the poet Charles Olson wrote, “What we have suffered from, is manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer, the voice, a removal by one, by two removes from its place of origin and its destination.” These comments came only a few years before Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, as if both poets anticipated its concerns and saw the need to emphasize the performative aspects of poetry in order to ensure its survival.
Most poetry readings take place in locations that are temporarily removed from their everyday function: bars, lecture halls, art galleries, coffee shops, bookstores, and so on. The auditor’s experience of the reading is dependent upon a number of contingent factors: PA system quality, background noise, and other various interruptions. A particularly salient example of this comes in Daniel Kane’s description of a reading that Kenneth Koch gave on January 10, 1968, at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York. Koch began the reading with a poem called “To My Audience,” which he had composed specifically for the occasion and which begins with the line “My audience of camel dung and fig newtons.” Not long into the poem, however, Koch was interrupted by a younger poet, Allen Van Newkirk, who entered the church from the rear, pulled out a pistol, and fired two blanks at Koch. After a few moments of general confusion, it became clear from the slogans Newkirk was shouting that he was staging a protest in honor of the poet Amiri Baraka, who had recently been convicted of unlawful possession of firearms during the Newark, New Jersey race riots of 1967. Visibly shaken, Koch resumed the reading at the place where he had left off, but one of the audience members suggested that he start again, to which Koch replied, “I never should have said ‘my audience of camel dung,’” which elicited uproarious laughter and clapping. Koch then went on to say, “I think I better read ‘The Pleasures of Peace’ [his long, anti–Vietnam War poem], I was going to read it later (laughter, clapping). Well, yeah I’m changing the order of readings.” Koch then went on to give a rather animated reading of “Pleasures of Peace.” If one considers Koch’s reading as a “collective event,” to borrow Middleton’s term, one can see how Van Newkirk’s interruption reverberated both forward and backward, altering the way “To My Audience” and “Pleasures of Peace” might be initially characterized in terms of tone or content, perhaps even affecting the way audience members — or those who have heard the recording — read the poems on the page.
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz and Stan Mir at Kelly Writers House in 2011.
Middleton claims that in studying the poetry reading as a text itself, “The different senses of the word ‘reading’ turn out to be more than superficially related.” This claim has fundamental implications for the way in which we think about the materiality of texts. In the contemporary poetry reading, elements of both oral and written cultures exist simultaneously, often in a radically unstable manner. In his description of the reading practices of the sixteenth-century miller Menocchio, Carlo Ginzburg asks the following somewhat rhetorical question: “To what extent did the prevalently oral culture of [the reader’s of Menocchio’s time] interject itself in the use of the text, modifying it, reworking it, perhaps to the point of changing its very essence?” The situation of the poetry reading reverses this question: to what extent does the text-based culture of a contemporary listener interject itself in the use of a reading, modifying it, reworking it, perhaps to the point of changing its very essence? The fundamental problem that this question introduces is the fact that the most complex models we have for thinking about literature are text-based. An aural form, like the poetry reading, requires the formulation of an entirely new critical vocabulary, one that scholars trained in the art of close reading — and even many who come from a cultural studies perspective — are ill-equipped to develop.
The poet John Giorno is fond of telling a story about attending a poetry reading with Andy Warhol in the early 1960s during which Warhol remarked, “It’s so boring. Why does it have to be so boring?” Anyone who has been to more than a handful of poetry readings has probably felt the same way at some point in his or her life. Giorno’s point is that the average poetry reading — where a lone reader stands in front of a podium reading his or her poems in a fairly monotone delivery — fails to create a spectacle capable of captivating contemporary audiences. Nonetheless, poetry readings survive, like genetically modified soybeans resilient to all manner of pesticides. I would argue that this resilience comes from the fact that poetry readings create — to adapt Benedict Anderson’s term — “imagined communities.” Anderson coins the term in his discussion of the role that literature plays in the development of nation-states. These communities, Anderson argues, are “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” The members of the communities created by poetry readings may know a higher percentage of their peers than the members of small nations, but the mental union is still very much the same. These imagined communities are different from Middleton’s “collective events” in the sense that the intersubjectivity between audience and performer is not necessarily the main reason audience members attend the readings, as audiences often attend poetry readings simply to participate in a given community. The featured performers — whose work is occasionally unknown to many audience members — and their performance itself are sometimes secondary to the events surrounding the performance: milling around and chatting before and after the reading, heading to a bar after the event’s organizers shoo everyone out of the original venue, and so on. I am not saying that the performers are not sometimes a big draw, but even in those cases the performance itself is often secondary.
My intention here is not to discredit Middleton’s notion of the poetry reading as a “collective event.” Quite the contrary. But I also think he overstates the importance of performer-audience intersubjectivity at the expense of some of the more external social aspects of the poetry reading. In order to understand what I mean when I say that readings create communities, spend a weekend in any major city hopping from poetry venue to poetry venue and observe how different the various audiences are. The poet Harryette Mullen once categorized this separation as “aesthetic apartheid” and noted that despite the “shared aspirations of social and aesthetic movements that envision a better world,” audiences from one side of the tracks rarely drift over to events on the other side. As a result, we are left with critics like Lazer who seem much more at home discussing the work of David Antin than more popular forms of poetry.
Of course, some interesting work has been done on poetry readings: Maria Damon has given much attention to poetry slams, for example, and Daniel Kane discusses the importance of reading series at Les Deux Mégots and Le Metro in the formation of the literary scene in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Much of this work, however, is devoted to the creation of writing communities, not listening communities, and some of the most interesting work stands to be done in the latter direction. Similarly, recent developments in technology have allowed greater access to historical poetry readings — the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound site, for example, offers a large number of poetry readings available to anyone with an Internet connection — but it would be nice to know to what use people were putting these recordings. Are they being used primarily for pedagogical purposes, or are people putting them on their iPods and listening to them on their morning commutes? These are the sorts of questions critics need to begin asking if we hope to understand the role of the poetry reading in a digital era.
Middleton’s notion of the poetry reading as a “collective event” is part of a reading strategy he calls “distant reading,” which essentially means acknowledging the distance that a contemporary critic has from the text, something which traditional close reading tends to abolish, and paying greater attention to both the textual and reception histories of a work. In this way, Middleton argues, criticism does “not represent itself as the fulfillment of the poem but as a partner in the poem’s continuance.” As much as I may agree with Middleton here, his conclusion is not exactly news, as it relies heavily on models of textual scholarship handed down from critics like McGann. Ultimately, Middleton shies away from some of the more interesting aspects of distant reading, particularly its emphasis on reception. To supplement Middleton’s approach, I propose adopting the very different concept of “distant reading” developed by Franco Moretti in his essay “Conjectures on World Literature.” In this essay, Moretti, drawing on Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems approach and its characterization of global capitalism as a set of mechanisms that unevenly distributes resources between the periphery and the core, advocates the importation of quantitative methods drawn from the social sciences to the study of literature. In order to map the global evolution of the novel, which is Moretti’s field of expertise, he suggests a synthesis of preexisting work on the development of national literatures, a “second hand” approach that he describes as “a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading.” This approach eschews discussions of individual authors and works in favor of charting large-scale shifts and trends in the development of world literature.
Poetry studies can benefit from a similar attention to what poetry readings have meant to different audiences in different places and times that scholars in the history and sociology of reading have given to the reading practices of other subaltern cultures. It is time that critics of modern and contemporary poetry stop producing criticism as we know it and start sitting down with audiences the way that Janice Radway sat down with the members of a book club in Ohio. These studies should cut as wide a swath as possible in order to account for socioeconomic, educational, and geographic factors. Then some ambitious scholars need to start putting the pieces of these various histories together to build a more complete understanding of poetry’s place amid the changing face of contemporary culture, allowing a much wider swath of literary work to be considered at once and shifting the conversation away from the fracturing that inevitably mars even the most well-meaning literary histories.
5. Charles Bernstein, “What’s Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of Humanities in an Age of Cultural Studies,” in Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies, ed. James Soderholm (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 21.
8. Lorenzo Thomas, “Neon Griot: The Functional Role of Poetry Readings,” in Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 189.
9. Hank Lazer, “The People’s Poetry,” Boston Review 29, no. 2 (2004).
10. Maria Damon, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 123. Of all current poetry scholarship, Damon’s sense of “micropoetries” is perhaps closest to my own concerns in this essay, especially the section “Elegaic Visitations” (195–202), in which Damon discusses the online writings of a Boston bicycle subculture.
11. Lazer, “The People’s Poetry.”
17. Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 171–73. The Poetry Project itself is a salient example of a way in which a group that exists outside the dominant culture has taken a space defined by that dominant culture and, in Michel de Certeau’s words, has “diverted it without leaving it,” a space where a certain blurring between secular and nonsecular events takes place: poets have been married there or had funeral services or memorial readings held there, but they have also taken LSD there and had sex in the balcony during readings. Often, the fact that the Project’s readings take place in a church affects the actual readings themselves, either through jokes or asides by the poet or audience members, or through poems written specifically for the occasion. At the same time, St. Mark’s Church remains a fully functional site of religious devotion. The Poetry Project only diverts that function temporarily, a fact that is made clear when such events as the annual New Year’s Day Marathon Reading must be moved to a different time because New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday. See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 32.