Carnal Knowledge and the Pedagogy of Poetry Performance
Terry Song | February 2004
When the spotlight came up on the darkened stage at the local music café, the air sizzled with expectancy as the young college women took the stage to celebrate the 2003 student literary magazine and perform the poems they had taken care to craft, polishing until their works shimmered and sang. When they stepped up to the mike and opened their mouths to translate the poems from page to the air, they cleared their throats and apologized before reading; they said what a hard act to follow the reader before them was; they shuffled or stammered, spoke too quietly, raced through the poem, swallowed the ends of words, phrases, lines—in essence, dissociated themselves from the work, from their bodies, and unfortunately, from the audience.
I recalled junior high and high school English, reading the works of Dickens and Shakespeare aloud in class with students taking turns. The student chosen to read always stumbled and fumbled the language, reading monotone sentence after sentence, as if the words had numerical values and no meaning, no magic at all. I remembered every dull poetry reading I ever sat through, the kind where you feign attention and try not to look at your watch or think of what you might be doing if you had stayed home. In fact, you find yourself wishing you had just bought the book, stayed home, and read the poems yourself, because, frankly, you hear the music of them better in your own head than what is being translated to the air.
I have nothing against public readings. I urge my students, even require them, to attend as many as possible. I remind them that the reading constitutes a primary form of publication, a potentially powerful means of disseminating our work. Readings build community. They make us, as lonely writers and lovers of literature, visible to ourselves. I believe painter and poet Michelle Gibbs’s claim that “the most integrative social power contained in words is liberated in performance… (and that it is) the spoken element which follows on the contemplative act of composition which is most capable of vitalizing folk.”1
Poems call us to embody them. “Unsounded poetry remains,” as Charles Bernstein identifies, “inert marks on a page, waiting to be called into use by saying, or hearing, the words aloud.”2 The scripted play waits to be called into use, the scored symphony waits, the poem waits.
Poetry needs a living audience—and a living audience needs to be rewarded for its love and attention to poetry. Jack Spicer asserts in his symposium address “On Spoken Poetry,” first published in Occident, Fall 1949, that “live poetry is a kind of singing,” different from prose not only in its compression but in its attention to sound, “its complexity of stress and intonation.”3 Perhaps, then, we owe it to the work and to the audience to tune our instrument, to not be content with merely polishing the work on the page but to put ourselves out a little, so it shimmers and sings when the expectant audience shows up to hear it. Otherwise, we should hand out printed song sheets at the door and send them home.
I couldn’t help but think, that evening that my students mumbled through their poems, how Spicer would have urged them to look to Orpheus, a singer who moved audiences with his beautiful poems. Spicer says:
Today we are not singers. We would rather publish poetry in a little magazine than read it in a large hall. If we do read in a hall, we do not take the most elementary steps to make our poetry vivid and entertaining. We are not singers. We do not use our bodies. We recite from a printed page.4
Not long after the music café reading, I heard a couple of MFA students from the nearby university read, one of whom had won a national prize for her poetry. I think she must have been quite good—but I couldn’t tell for sure, since I had to strain to hear her and lost some of it. In her quiet, uninflected voice, one poem began to sound like another, each announced by a one-liner saying two things that appear in the poem (“This one has horses and bees”).
I began to wonder if perhaps we would do well in our BFA and MFA workshops or with the students we mentor and send out into the world with their first manuscripts in hand, ready to join the reading circuits, to give them some basic instruction in body and breath and sound production, in how to prepare for a reading and how to connect with the audience—in short, how to do justice to their work. In writing workshops, we work closely with students to help them listen to the poem, revise and polish; we coach them to prepare their babies and send them out into the world for publication, neglecting to prepare them for one of the most fundamental forms of publication: the reading. We don’t have to make performance poets of them, but good work deserves to be read well.
The old writer’s joke, “what’s the smallest audience you’ve ever read to,” is no joke. The local audience for poetry is generally small (I’m not talking slams and high-energy Performance venues with a capital P, but regular poetry readings). The audience, who drags itself out on a rainy week night in support of the literary arts, is generally comprised of writers who come from their day jobs that pay the bills so they can write at night. Some come out of a sense of obligation and moral duty—to be sure the poet will have an audience, to keep the reading series going, to be a warm body in the room. Often they are college students who sit in classes all day and have an exam in the morning or teachers with papers still to look at when they get home. Tired as they may be, they put on their shoes and show up to the dry-as-dust reading, where even if the poetry is excellent, it gets lost as the dry-as-dust reader throws the music away.
And the person in the audience—what does she hope for as she settles into the hard chair, easing the tension of the day? Maybe she only hopes the reading will not last too long, that there will be time for dinner or perhaps a glass of wine after. If she is like me, she hopes to be lifted a little, to be reminded why she loves literature or why she is a poet, to be surprised or delighted, her ears soothed in the sensory pleasure of the dance that language is. Maybe, she thinks, she will find inspiration to go home and write or to live a little differently. When I attend a reading, even an occasionally big one at the university, I try to go without expectation, open and not expecting but longing for the gift of a reading that is like exquisite sex. I am prepared to be deeply appreciative if I get it. Perhaps there will at least be a moment of connection, of recognition, something to offset the loss of vitality in everyday life.
Adrienne Rich, in her essay “Voices in the Air,” says if the reading is good, “you listen… not simply to the poem, but to a part of you reawakened by the poem.” Maybe that is what we seek when we go out to listen to poetry—to be reawakened. And while the poem cannot “free us from the struggle for existence… it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the… emergencies of our lives.”5
Whether the audience comes for that moment of identification of their own buried desires, out of duty, or simply for community, in the small room at the library, at the bookstore, at the university, taking in the others who have turned out for poetry—we owe something to the audience and should not overdraw on their goodwill but reward them richly for the attention we demand. Just as we deserve to be read on the page, let us deserve to be heard. Let us, as Spicer says, “take the most elementary steps to make our poems (out loud) vivid and entertaining.”
While I don’t advocate good performance as cover-up for poems that are thin on the page, compensating for what is missing in the text, I do urge that, as performers of our work, we become worthy vehicles, adept translators who do justice to strong poems, letting the language do what it was born to do and leave the poems hovering and humming in the ear of the listener. We know the truth of Adrienne Rich’s words, that poetry is “carrier of the sparks… seeking connection with unseen others,”6 and that in times of national vacuity or “spiritual rupture… poetry becomes more necessary than ever: it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.”7 Let the liquid voice be clear, resonant, and ringing. To that end, it may be time for creative writing programs to consider if there is room to incorporate the teaching of a poetics and prosody of performance. While poetry reading is not theatre and it is not music, something of the technique and pedagogy might be borrowed from each to make us at least serviceable readers of poetry and to prepare our students for oral publication.
After that night of recognition in the music café, when I saw that students would benefit from a little instruction and coaching, I planned on building a two-week seminar into the intermediate level poetry workshop as an experiment. Since reading the poem is a physical act, it made sense that students might benefit from physical instruction and physical practice. One year, as a member of the faculty committee that evaluates colleagues nominated for the excellence in teaching award, I had the opportunity to observe the musical theatre course, where the professor had her students do mock auditions in preparation for auditioning as professionals after graduation. After much coaching and preliminary work, each student prepared a brief introduction with sixteen bars of a ballad and sixteen bars of an up-tempo then walked onstage to audition. Before the student left the stage, the teacher asked her a question, as a director might to test a player’s poise, then gave her immediate feedback on the audition.
I decided to build my experiment on her model, and announced my intentions to my willing students, asking them to select a couple of their best poems and perhaps one by a favorite author to practice. In the meantime, I scrounged up every tip I could, drawing from the experience of reading my own work over the years and from mental notes I had compiled attending many, many dry-as-dust readings as well as some very memorable ones. I dug back into an old pocket-sized journal for a few things I jotted down at a past AWP conference where a panel spoke on “Performing the Poem (Even if You’re Not a Performance Poet).”8 That session, I might add, was body-to-body, jam-packed, standing-room-only—maybe signifying that poets are looking to be better performers of their work or perhaps that creative writing teachers are sensing the need to help their students become better public readers.
The amalgam of all my tips included the following maxims and advice:
Since poems call us to embody them and a reading is language embodied, you must inhabit your body, possessing yourself and the work. The poem doesn’t just come from your head and your mouth; it comes from your body. It is flesh offering a gift. Feel your feet under you. Connect your head to your body, free your neck, lift your chest. Feel the energy of your breath all the way from your toes, to your groin, your abdomen, up to your third eye and the top of your head. Remember: you are poetry alive!
Don’t look at your watch. Don’t shuffle papers. It dispossesses you and the work. You owe it to the audience to possess yourself and the work.
Own it with your voice. Every syllable must be heard. The music must sing out but in proper balance with the sense. Don’t mumble or swallow the words. Don’t shout.
Pace yourself during the reading. Pace yourself within the poems too. Listeners need time to absorb, since they don’t have the printed page. Don’t rush. Don’t drag.
Don’t talk interminably between poems, leaving too little time for the work. Light introductory material and transitions in between help you connect with the audience and give them time to absorb the poem and to shift emotional gears before the next. It’s okay to mention how the idea/poem came or what its surrounding circumstances were—but don’t explain the poem to the audience. It’s all there in the poem.
Never apologize for your work. If you are reading with other poets, don’t say what a hard act to follow. Don’t say where the poem was published; no one likes an egocentric braggart.
Finally—the CARDINAL RULE: Don’t read too long. Keep it short and appealing. Keep within your time limit. Leave them wanting more!
All of this is to say: read your best work and read it well. One of the panelists that day advised the packed room of future readers: “Every time you do a poem, you need to remember what made you start writing.” And the wise words that helped one of my students overcome fear, when she debuted at a Women’s History month reading for a large audience at the big University: “In every audience, there is one person who needs to hear the poem you are going to read.”
In addition to all the tips, I decided, as part of my strategy, to enlist the help of the college’s voice teacher, Pamela Ellsworth-Smith, to meet with students for a couple of sessions in using the voice, body, and breath in sound production. Before meeting with her, I asked students to practice reading their selected pieces into a tape recorder and listening for all the little nuances of pitch, duration, accent, rhythm, and pacing. We also closely studied “Accent and Duration” from Pinsky’s The Sound of Poetry in conjunction with the study of the poet’s work we were reading. The more students notice and closely study the workings of actual living rhythms of the lines, the better attenuated and sensitized they become to the nuances and energies that course through a poem, its accelerando and crescendo, its reach and pull. The greater their awareness of the subtle and complex play of syllables, the more they can get from performance and the greater their ability to be true to the music of the poems. They develop their “ear.”
Some students reported the tape recorder sessions useful in helping them with further revisions of their poems. Others said it helped them overcome self-consciousness, that nothing is more intimidating than hearing yourself on tape or watching yourself in the mirror.
Our time with the voice coach was incredibly productive. Students brought the pieces they were working on. She gave them warm-ups, worked with them on breathing, listened to each and coached each—and especially helped them become aware of quality of sound and resonance. She taught them that the ability to be heard clearly has much to do with “placement” of sound. Many of the students (often smokers) had the same problem with ends of phrases and sometimes whole lines being lost because they produced the sound on the glottal fry (a kind of throaty, raspy or gravelly, almost swallowed sound produced in the back of the throat). She gave them some wonderful “nasally” exercises that change the placement, bringing it more forward into what is called the “singing mask,” where it has a clear, resonant, bell-like quality.
After working with her, students could tell a huge difference, both in quality of sound and ability to manage the breath—also the benefit of feeling more in their body, connected and grounded, with a sense of greater confidence. They began to notice and critique those things in each other, in visiting writers who read at the college or in the community, and in the video-taped readings we sometimes viewed.
After the voice work, I had them find a public space on campus to practice alone, then another time in pairs, giving each other feedback. They added intros and transitions, and I encouraged them to memorize one of the pieces, so they would have one to do “off the page” anytime. Then we went over to the stage in the music recital hall to practice, and I gave each of them feedback. The whole seminar culminated in a mock performance for the English/Creative Writing faculty, with each student receiving immediate verbal feedback from each faculty member on the spot after their reading/performance. The process was a blend of constructive critique and wonderful affirmation, which further boosted the student writers’ confidence in their ability to engage an audience with their work. The faculty was amazed at such confident, articulate young poets and their strong work, and I was delighted at the transformation of the embarrassingly halting and nervous readers into budding young writers who knew what it was to do justice to the work, who knew how to tune their instruments, how to use the tools of the voice, the breath, the body.
The following spring, when the student literary magazine came off the press and the celebration and reading was again held downtown on the stage of the café, confident readers who had polished their poems on the page were ready to make the evening an event for the large audience who turned out. That night was (to borrow, if I may, a term from Paul Beasley) a celebration of “the corporeality of language,”9 and a palpable presence of community arose between readers and audience in the experience of poetry pulling us toward each other.
Their commitment to their work “published by the body” was an inspiration to me, when, a month later, I prepared for a poetry reading/performance in a venue very different from any reading I’ve ever done. Asked to contribute two ten-minute “sets” of poetry in an evening of classical and jazz music on the stage of the historic Missouri Theatre in a cabaret-like setting, I felt compelled to practice what I had preached and pushed myself to learn the pieces without relying on the page, so that I could step up to the mike and pull the poems from my body and create in performance what Gary Snyder calls an “act of art.”10
In the first set, I performed three of my own poems and in the second set, the long poem of Leslie Ullman in two voices, “One Side Writes to the Other.”11 That evening I took the poems inside me and let them sing themselves out of my body. Something else happened in the reciting of Ullman’s poem that night: as I stood in the moment of the poem, I was the “I” of the poem, was the poet composing it. Though I did not write it, in the act of reciting, it could have been, in fact it was, my poem. Gregory Nagy, referring to Homeric epics and troubadour poetry, says: “to perform the song… is to recompose it, to change it, to move it.”12 I moved it—and it moved me, and the audience with me.
In that moment of reciting, I got a deep taste of what Charles Bernstein describes in his essay, “Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word:” “In sounding language, we sound the width and breadth and depth of human consciousness… We sing the body of language.”13 If sound, as he said and as we all know, is “language’s flesh,” its material, sensual embodiment, that night on the stage of the Missouri Theatre, in front of an audience seated at little café tables, their candlelit faces rapt and responsive, I experienced carnal knowledge of language. I let my taste in music into my poems and into the reciting of them, let what moves my body into the poems and into the moment of translating them. I performed not only what was written on the page but performed for the pleasure of the audience. That night, poetry found its connection. In the eyes and postures of the audience, there was a visible listening, “not simply to the poem, but to a part of (the self) re-awakened by the poem.”
Several people commented after the event how the hearing enlarged the experience of the poem; even for those who had read the work and connected to it when reading, the hearing created something more than simply reading. Perhaps the enlarged experience of the poem in a reading is a gestalt of “language’s flesh,” poet’s persona and physical being, the particulars of place, shared physical presence of the audience, all contributing to the poem’s full effect—so different from the eye’s translation of symbols on a page.
And what I sensed that night in an audience who normally would not attend a poetry reading was a mending of the gap that separates poetry from life. I felt a breaking down of what Beasley calls “the specialist conception and myth of the poet as separate from people,” a transforming—reorienting away from the notion of “the poet as member of a cultural elite or with the poem as merely ‘words on a page.’”14
Since so much of the poet’s life happens in solitude—the writing, sending work out, receiving letters of acceptance/rejection—to make the reading a moment of true connection and community seems a valuable effort and counterbalance for the poet as well. The physicality of such a moment also serves to remind us, demonstrably, of something we tend to forget about the nature of poetry, that Donald Hall reminds us of in his survey of the state of the poetry reading in the United States:
Poems do not issue from typewriters, quills, fountain pens, or word processors; poems are products of bodies and move through the air to other bodies—through voice out of stomach, chest, and mouth; out of foot-tapping, out of hand-gesturing.15
Perhaps the need for connection, for publication by the body to a living audience in the flesh, is why so many poets read for nothing—not just because “physical publishing is appropriate to poetry’s nature,” but for the sheer pleasure, the joy and satisfaction of taking the dance of the poem out in “community’s open air” to be “reconstituted” in the listener.16 We will likely never return, as a country, to a time recalled by Adrienne Rich, when people entertained each other with:
verbal games, recitations, charades, singing, playing on instruments, doing anything as amateurs—people who are good at something because they enjoy it. To be good at talk . . . having a vivid tongue, savoring turns of phrase, to sing on key and know many songs by heart—to write long letters—to draw pictures or whittle wood with some amount of skill—to do moderately and pleasingly well, in short, a variety of things without solemn investment or disenabling awe—these were common talents till recently, crossing class and racial lines. People used their human equipment—memory, image making, narrative, voice, hand, eye—unself-consciously, to engage with other people…17
Maybe we can, however, recuperate the poet’s function, “redefining the poet’s role to include, for example, community historian, teacher, broadcaster, agitator and entertainer.”18 We can perhaps mend the breach between poetry and community, democratizing, without diminishing poetry’s quality and artistic integrity, integrating poetry into the fabric of the life of the people, so that poetry is not a marginal activity. Let us delight our friends and neighbors around the campfire, at the kitchen table, in the back yard, and on long road trips. Let us learn many poems and recite them well, so that poetry adds vitality to American life, so that citizens of our country go home from the reading in universities, libraries, cafés and coffee shops saying, “Poetry? I like poetry.” And maybe one day poetry, even in print, will no longer be relegated in chain bookstores to “those two shelves down there.”19
To that end let us, as Spicer admonished, “take the most elementary steps to make our poems vivid and entertaining.” And let those of us who work with young writers advise them in the tuning of their instrument so they are worthy of publishing with their bodies for live audiences, which they will surely be asked to do if they continue writing over the lifespan. Let us not be content to “recite from a printed page;” rather, let us learn from Orpheus—let us use our human equipment and use it well when we commit ourselves to the aurality of poetry. If we are willing to be singers, perhaps we can, after all, create a little magic in the space where poetry happens.
Qtd. in Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (New York: Norton, 2003), 54.
- Charles Bernstein, “Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word,” (This essay was written as the introduction to Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) and collected in My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).), 2.
- Jack Spicer, “On Spoken Poetry,” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, eds. D. Gioia, D. Mason, and M. Schoerke (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 258.
- Ibid. 258.
- Rich, 12–13.
- Ibid., 58.
- Ibid., 122.
- Timothy Liu, Molly Peacock, and Patricia Smith, “Performing the Poem (Even if You’re Not a Performance Poet),” (panel at AWP Conference in Chicago, Illinois, March 24, 2004).
- Paul Beasley, “Vive la difference! Performance Poetry,” Critical Quarterly, 38.4, 34.
- Qtd. in Donald Hall, “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance/Private Art,” The American Scholar, 2001, 7.
- Leslie Ullman, Slow Work through Sand (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998), 62-65.
- Qtd. in Bernstein, 4.
- Ibid., 10.
- Beasley, 33.
- Hall, 77.
- Rich, 80.
- Beasley, 33.
- Rich, 29.