Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word
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).]
I sing and I play the flute
No one listens to poetry. The
While the performance of poetry
is as old as poetry itself, critical attention to modern and contemporary
poetry performance has been negligible, despite the crucial importance
of performance to the practice of the poetry of this century. The subject
is wide-ranging and requires a range of approaches. At one end of the
spectrum would be philosophical and critical approaches to the contribution
of sound to meaning: the way poets, and especially twentieth century innovative
poets, work with sound as material, where sound is neither arbitrary nor
secondary but constitutive. At the other end of the spectrum would be
critical interpretations of the performance style of individual poets.
Such approaches may well encourage “close listenings” not only to the
printed text of poems, but also to tapes and performances.
Since the 1950s, the poetry reading has become one of the most important sites for the dissemination of poetic works in North America, yet studies of the distinctive features of the poem-in-performance have been rare (even full-length studies of a poet’s work routinely ignore the audiotext), and readings – no matter how well attended – are never reviewed by newspapers or magazines (though they are the frequent subject of light, generally misinformed, “feature” stories on the perennial “revival” of poetry). A large archive of audio and video documents, dating back to an early recording of Tennyson's almost inaudible voice, awaits serious study and interpretation. The absence of such a history has had the effect of eliding the significance of the modernist poetry traditions for postwar performance art. At the same time, the performative dimension of poetry has significant relation to text-based visual and conceptual art, as well as visual poetry, which extend the performative (and material) dimension of the literary text into visual space.
The newly emerging field of performance studies and theory provides a useful context for this study. By considering examples of “total” performances in other cultures, performance theorists have reoriented the discussion of the relation of theater, audience, and text. While much of the discussion of postmodern performance art has been focused on this and related contexts, there has been considerably less focus on the implications for poetry performance. Particularly helpful for “close listening” is Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis, especially his conception of how the cued frame through which a situation (or work) is viewed necessarily puts other features out of frame, into what he calls the “disattend track.” Focusing attention on a poem’s content or form typically involves putting the audiotext as well as the typography – the sound and look – of the poem, into the disattend track. Indeed, the drift of much literary criticism of the two decades has been away from the auditory and performative aspects of the poem, partly because of the prevalent notion that the sound structure of language is relatively arbitrary. Such elements as the visual appearance of the text or the sound of the work in performance may be extralexical but they are not extrasemantic. When textual elements that are conventionally framed out as nonsemantic are acknowledged as significant, the result is a proliferation of possible frames of interpretation. Then it becomes a question of whether we see these frames or strata as commensurate with each other, leading to a “total image complex” of the poem, to use Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s term; or whether we see these strata as incommensurate with each other, contradictory, leading to a reading of the poem as untotalizable. Here “strata” might usefully be thought of also as the kind of layers, one finds in a palimpsest.
In a sense, the Close Listening collection emerged as a complex, multilayered response to a quite simple, and common, response to a poetry reading, as when one says: “I understand the work better hearing the poet read it. I would never have been able to figure out that the poems would sound that way.” (This is not to discount the significance of performances by poets that seem “bad” for one reason or another or may make one like the work less than on the page, nor to distract from the significance of the performance of a poem by someone other than its author.) Insofar as poetry performance is countenanced as a topic of discussion, the subject is often assumed to be exemplified by such high-octane examples as Vachel Lindsay's notorious “Congo” (“MUMBO JUMBO in the CONNNG-GO”), or Carl Sandburg's melodramatic presentation style (“in the tooooombs, the coooool toooooombs”), or Allen Ginsberg’s near-chanting of “Howl”, or more recently the “rap”, “slam”, and “scratch” poetry. But the unanticipatably slow tempo of Wallace Stevens's performance tells us much about his sense of the poem's rhythms and philosophical sensuousness, just as John Ashbery's near monotone suggests a dreamier dimension than the text sometimes reveals. The intense emotional impact of Robert Creeley’s pauses at line breaks gives an affective interpretation to what otherwise reads as a highly formal sense of fragmented line breaks – the breaks suggest emotional pitch and distress in a way audible in the recordings but not necessarily on the page. The recordings of Gertrude Stein make clear both the bell-like resonance of her voice and her sense of shifting rhythms against modulating repetitions and the shapeliness of her sound-sense; while hearing Langston Hughes one immediately picks up not only on the specific blues echoes in the work but how he modulated shifts into and out of these rhythms. Having heard these poets read, we change our hearing and reading of their works on the page as well.
No doubt, there are a number
of factors that are involved in the dramatically increased significance
of the poetry reading in the postwar period in North American and the
United Kingdom. At the outset, though, let me put forward one explanation.
During the past forty years, more and more poets have used forms whose
sound patterns are made up – that is, their poems do not follow
received or prefabricated forms. It is for these poets that the poetry
reading has taken on so much significance. For the sound shapes of the
poems of such practitioners are often most immediately and viscerally
heard in performance (taped or live), even if the attuned reader might
be able to hear something comparable in her or his own (prior) reading
of the text. The poetry reading is a public tuning. (Think of
how public readings in the 1950s by Creeley, Ginsberg, Olson, and Jack
Kerouac established – in a primary way – not only the sound of their work
but also the possibilities for related work. Bob Perelman’s discussion
of the poet’s talk explores more recent versions of a practice largely
established by these poets.) The proliferation of poetry readings has
allowed a spinning out into the world of a new series of acoustic modalities,
which have had an enormous impact in informing the reading of contemporary
poetry. These performances set up new conventions that are internalized
and applied to further reading of the poetic texts. They are the acoustic
grounding of innovative practice – our collective sounding board.
The text of “Afro-American Lyric” brings to mind the language of Marxist political pamphlets, foregrounding the poem’s untransformed didacticism. Hearing Baraka read this poem on a tape of his July 26, 1978 performance at the Naropa Institute, however, gives a distinctly different impression. Baraka sounds the syllables of “simple shit” (“Seeeeeeeeeee-immmmmmmmmmm pull” in the text), interweaving and syncopating them with “exploiting class, owning class, bourgeois class, reactionary class,” turning the text’s diatribe into a cross between a sound poem and a scat jazz improvisation. He makes playful yet dissonant music from the apparently refractory words of Marxist analysis, bringing out the uncontained phonic plenitude inside and between the words. This is no mere embellishment of the poem but a restaging of its meaning (“Class Struggle in Music”, as Baraka titles a later poem). Baraka's recitations invoke a range of performance rhetorics from hortatory to accusatory: typically, he will segue from his own intoning of a song tune to a more neutrally inflected phrase, then plunge into a percussively grating sound.
What’s the relation of Baraka’s performance – or of any poem performed by its author – to the original text? I want to overthrow the common presumption that the text of a poem – that is, the written document – is primary and that the recitation or performance of a poem by the poet is secondary and fundamentally inconsequential to the “poem itself.” In the conventional view, recitation has something of the status of interpretation – it provides a possible gloss of the immutable original. One problem with this perspective, most persuasively argued by Jerome McGann in Black Riders, The Textual Condition, and A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, is that there is often no one original written version of a poem. Even leaving aside the status of the manuscript, there often exist various and discrepant printings – I should like to say textual performances – in magazines and books, with changes in wording but also spacing, font, paper and, moreover, contexts of readership; making for a plurality of versions none of which can claim sole authority. I would call these multifoliate versions performances of the poem; and I would add the poet’s own performance of the work in a poetry reading, or readings, to the list of variants that together, plurally, constitute and reconstitute the work. This, then, is clearly not to say that all performances of a poem have equal authority. An actor’s rendition, like a type designer’s “original” setting of a classic, will not have the same kind of authority as a poet’s own reading or the first printing of the work. But the performance of the poet, just as the visualization of the poem in its initial printings, forever marks the poem’s entry into the world; and not only its meaning, its existence.
A poem understood as a performative
event and not merely as a textual entity refuses the originality of the
written document in favor of “the plural event” of the work, to use a
phrase of Andrew Benjamin’s. That is, the work is not identical to any
one graphical or performative realization of it, nor can it be equated
with a totalized unity of these versions or manifestations. The poem,
viewed in terms of its multiple performances, or mutual intertranslatability,
has a fundamentally plural existence. This is most dramatically enunciated
when instances of the work are contradictory or incommensurable, but it
is also the case when versions are commensurate. To speak of the poem
in performance is, then, to overthrow the idea of the poem as a fixed,
stable, finite linguistic object; it is to deny the poem its self-presence
and its unity. Thus, while performance emphasizes the material presence
of the poem, and of the performer, it at the same time denies the unitary
presence of the poem, which is to say its metaphysical unity.
The poetry reading, considered along with typographic, holographic, and contextual variants, modulates and deepens what 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. The effect is to create a space of authorial resistance to textual authority. For while writing is normally –if reductively and counterproductively  – viewed as stabilizing and fixing oral poetic traditions, authorial poetry readings are best understood as destabilizing, by making more fluid and pluriform, an aural (post-written) poetic practice. And here the double sense of reading is acutely relevant. For in realizing, by supplementing, the semantic possibilities of the poem in a reading, the poet encourages readers to perform the poem on their own, a performance that is allowed greater latitude depending on how reading-centered the poem is – that is, how much the poem allows for the active participation of the reader (in both senses) in the constitution of the poem’s meaning.
I am proposing that we look at the poetry reading not as a secondary extension of “prior” written texts but as its own medium. What, then, are the characteristics specific to this medium and what can it do that other live performance media – instrumental music, song and opera, theater – cannot? The answer may be found in what seems to many the profoundly anti-performative nature of the poetry reading: the poetry reading as radically “poor theater” in Jerzy Grotowski’s sense. If that is true, it may show how what some find as the most problematic aspect of the poetry reading may turn out to be its essence: that is, its lack of spectacle, drama, and dynamic range, as exemplified especially in a certain minimal – anti-expressivist – mode of reading. I’m tempted to label this mode anti-performative to suggest a kind of rhetorical (in the stylisitc sense of “antirhetorical”) strategy and not to suggest it is any less a performance choice than the most “theatrical” reading. (John Cage’s poetry readings are a good example of this mode.) In an age of spectacle and high drama, the anti-expressivist poetry reading stands out as an oasis of low technology that is among the least spectaclized events in our public culture. Explicit value is placed almost exclusively on the acoustic production of a single unaccompanied speaking voice, with all other theatrical elements being placed, in most cases, out of frame. The solo voice so starkly framed can come to seem virtually disembodied in an uncanny, even hypnotic, way. Such poetry readings share the intimacy of radio or of small ensemble or chamber music. In contrast to theater, where the visual spectacle creates a perceived distance separating viewers from viewed, the emphasis on sound in the poetry reading has the opposite effect – it physically connects the speaker and listener, moving to overcome the self-consciousness of the performance context. Indeed, the anti-expressivist mode of reading works to defeat the theatricality of the performance situation, to allow the listener to enter into a concave acoustic space rather than be pushed back from it, as in a more propulsive reading mode (which creates a convex acoustic space). When a poem has an auditory rather than a visual source (the heard performance rather than the read text), our perspective on, or of, the work shifts. Rather than looking at the poem – at the words on a page – we may enter into it, perhaps to get lost, perhaps to lose ourselves, our (nonmetrical) “footing” with one another. According to Charles Lock, “the absence or presence of perspective marks the crucial difference between ‘pictorial’ and ‘symbolic’ signs, both of which are ‘visual.’” For a text is the only visual sign system that, as Lock puts it, is “entirely free of perspective” (418). Like a text, auditory phenomena do not permit perspective but they do have an auditory version of perspective, location, and that is a constitutive element of the medium of the poetry reading.
This formalist approach to
the poetry reading may explain the common dislike, among poets, of actors’
reading of poems; for this registers not a dislike of vocalization but
of a style of acting that frames the performance in terms of character,
personality, setting, gesture, development, or drama, even though these
may be extrinsic to the text at hand. That is, the “acting” takes precedence
over letting the words speak for themselves (or worse eloquence compromises,
not to say eclipses, the ragged music of the poem). The project of the
poetry reading, from this formalist perspective, is to find the sound
in the words, not in any extrinsic scenario or supplemental accompaniment.
Without in any way wishing to undermine the more extravagantly theatrical
style of reading, I would point to this more monovalent, minimally inflected,
and in any case unaugmented, mode as touching on the essence of the medium.
For poetry cannot, and need not, compete with music in terms of acoustic
complexity or rhythmic force, or with theater in terms of spectacle. What
is unique, and in its own way exhilarating, about the performance of poetry
is that it does what it does within the limits of language alone.
Prosody is too dynamic a subject
to be restricted to conventionally metrical verse. Yet many accounts of
poetry continue to reduce questions of poetic rhythm to meter or regularized
stress, as if nonmetrical poetry, especially the more radically innovative
poetry of this century, were not more rhythmically and acoustically
rich than its so-called formalist counterparts. In the acoustic space
of performed poetry, I would emphasize distress and asymmetry,
as much as accentual patter: dissonance and irregularity, rupture and
silence constitute a rhythmic force (or aversion of force) in the
sounded poem. Such
counterrhythmic elements create, according to Giorgio Agamben, “a mismatch,
a disconnection between the metrical and syntactic elements, between sounding
rhythm and meaning, such that (contrary the received opinion that sees
in poetry the locus of an accomplished and a perfect fit between
sound and meaning) poetry lives, instead, only in their inner disagreement.
In the very moment when verse affirms its own identity by breaking a syntactic
link, it is irresistibly drawn into bending over into the next line to
lay hold of what it has thrown out of itself.”
PERforMANCE readIly allows
FOR stressING (“promotING”) unstressED syllaBLEs, INcluding prepOsitionS,
artiCLES, aNd conjunctIONS – creaTING SynCoPAtEd rHyThms, whiCH, onCE
hEArd are THen caRRied oVer by readERS iNTo theIr oWN reAding of tHe teXT.
(Let me stress that, as with many features I am discussing in the context
of performance, it is often possible to hear such rhythmic and arhythmic
patterns in the process of close listening to the written text of the
poem, as in Stein’s aptly titled prose-format poem How to Write.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’s marvelously delirious attempts to visually mark
such patterns in his texts is exemplary.) Performance also underscores
(or should I say underwrites?) a prosodic movement of which I am particularly
fond, in which the poem suggests a certain rhythmic pattern over the course
of perhaps, a few lines, then segues into an incommensurable pattern,
sometimes shuttling between the two, sometimes adding a third or fourth
pattern: the prior pattern continues on underneath as a sort of sonic
afterimage, creating a densely layered, or braided, or chordal, texture.
The complex or fuzzy prosodics of such sprung rhythm produces the acoustic
equivalent of a moiré pattern.
The relation of sound to meaning is something like the relation of the soul (or mind) to the body. They are aspects of each other, neither prior, neither independent. To imagine that a meaning might be the same despite a change of words is something like imagining that I’d still be me in a new body. (So disagreements on this matter are theological as much as metaphysical – they cannot be reduced to factual disputes.) It won’t come as a big surprise to most people that a poet is investing so much in sound – no doubt we’ve been seduced into confusing the shell for the husk, or is it the pea for the nut?
J. H. Prynne, in “Stars, Tigers
and the Shape of Words,” makes the argument quite well, though it does
bear repeating, since repetition is never interesting for what is the
same but for what is different: While verbal language may be described
as a series of differential sound values, and while it makes sense to
say that it is these differences that allow for meaning, it does not follow
that the only meaning these sounds have lies in their difference from
other sounds. Positive meanings adhere to sound in a number of ways. To
speak of the positive, rather than merely negative or differential, meaning
of sound does not rely on what might be called “pure” sound symbolism
– the perception that particular sounds and dynamic features of sounds
(as in pitch, constellations of sound, intonation, amplitude, timbre)
have intrinsic meaning; though there is much that is appealing in this
view, as Walter Benjamin shows in his “Doctrine of the Similar.” The claim
that certain sound vibrations have an inhering or immutable meaning is
the perhaps mystical nodal point of a constellation of iconic attributes
of language. Other points in this constellation cluster around the purely
extrinsic meanings that adhere to sounds and dynamic features of sounds,
either based on historical associations, which over time get hard-wired
into some words or sounds; or, more intricately, based on the oral range
made possible by a specific dietary pattern that alters the body’s sounding
board (dentation, palette, vocal chords, breath). Each language’s specific
morphology allows many possibilities for iconicity – from the physical
size or number of characters in a word, to the number of syllables or
patterns of syllables in a word, to associations with timbre or intonation
or patterning. Iconicity refers to the ability of language to present,
rather than represent or designate, its meaning. Here meaning is not something
that accompanies the word but is performed by it. One of the primary features
of poetry as a medium is to foreground the various iconic features of
language – to perform the verbalness of language. The poetry reading,
as much as the page, is the site for such performance.
It is certainly not my intention to reinvent the wheel, just to let it spin words into acts. Any consideration of the relation of sound to poetry needs to point to the pioneering work of linguists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, Roman Jakobson, Linda Waugh, George Lakoff, and many others. In a recent treatment of this topic, What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive, Reuven Tsur quite usefully emphasizes a distinction between the perception of speech sounds (the “speech mode” of listening) and material sounds (the “nonspeech mode”).  He argues that there is a marked cognitive difference in the way a listener hears a material sound – say a flapping flag or the pouring rain – and the way she or he hears human speech. Speech triggers a specific cognitive mode of interpretation in a way that material sound does not. This is something like the distinction Roland Barthes makes, in an essay called “Listening,” between hearing (physiological) and listening (psychological).  According to Tsur, and following Jakobson, the “poetic function” of language is a third type: it involves hearing what we are listening to. That is, poetry creates something of the conditions of hearing (not just listening to) a foreign language – we hear it as language, not music or noise; yet we cannot immediately process its meaning. Another way of saying this is that the poetic function – what Tsur calls “the poetic mode of speech perception” – rematerializes language, returns it from “speech” back to “sound”; or rather, the poetic mode synthesizes the speech mode of perception and the nonspeech mode of perception. I want to project this frame of reference onto Barthes’s evocative speculations on rhythm in “Listening.” Barthes uses Sigmund Freud’s famous discussion of the child’s game of fort / da, in which the child tosses out and pulls back a spool attached to a thread, as an example of a primal rhythmic oscillation of presence and absence, miming the presence and absence of the mother at the same time as it makes palpable the structure of the linguistic sign. It’s as if when I say “you’re here” / “you’re not” the sounds are present but you are not. In the poetic mode of listening, there is an oscillation (or temporal overlap) between the materially present sound (hearing: the nonspeech mode) and the absent meaning (listening: the speech mode): this is a satisfaction of all reading aloud, as when we read stories and poems to children. The poetry reading allows for a particularly marked extension of this pleasure, especially when the performance seizes the opportunity to make rhythmic oscillations between its opaque soundings and its transparent references. No doubt this helps to explain the uncanny power of a great sound poem like Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz Sonata,” with its exquisite passages of child-like entoning, which evoked tears from its first hearers. But it also a quality inherent in the structure – the medium – of the poetry reading itself, and it can be found in its most ordinary forms. In this way, the poetry reading occupies a formal space akin to song, but one in which the musicality, or sound-grounding, of the language is produced strictly within the range of speech-mode perception. It is the transformation of language to sound, rather than the setting of language in sound, that distinguishes song from recitation.
As a matter of habituated
fact, the distinction between speech perception and sound perception seems
well established. I do hear the beat of a hammer, the lapping of water,
or the bleat of a sheep in a way that is cognitively discontinuous with
the way I listen to human speech. With the speech in which I am most at
home, I automatically translate streams of sounds into streams of words
with a rapidity and certainty that makes the sounds transparent – a conjuring
trick that is slowed by variant accents and arrested by foreign tongues.
But this transparency effect of language may be less an intrinsic property
of speech than a sign of our opaqueness to the transhuman world, which
also speaks, if we could learn (again) to listen, as writers from Henry
David Thoreau in Walden to, most recently, David Abram in The
Spell of the Sensuous have argued. “It is animate earth that speaks;
human speech is but a part of that vaster discourse” (Abram, 179). Yet
language is not just a part of the “animate earth,” its sounds also echo
the music of the nonanimate earth. Speech-mode perception, as an
habituated response to language, may indeed preemptively cut off our response
to nonhuman sounds – organic and machinic – at the same time as it dematerializes
human language, muting its sonic roots in the earth as well as the world.
Yet while Abram argues that our alienation from the sensuous is partly
to be blamed on alphabetic writing, I would emphasize – against such self-proclaimed
“oralist” perspectives – that our insistent separation of human and nonhuman
sounds is not the result of writing (alphabetic or otherwise) but of human
language itself.  Alphabetic aurality is not cut-off from the earth but is a
material embodiment of it.
Poetry characterized as pre-symbolic (and praised or condemned as primitive, infantile or child-like, nonsensical, meaningless) would more accurately be characterized as post-symbolic (and thus described as paratactic, complex or chaotic, procreative, hyperreferential); just as such works, when they aver rationality, are not irrational. Rather, such works affirm the bases of reason against a dehumanizing fixation on the rigidly monologic and rationalistic. The problem is being stuck in any one modality of language – not being able to move in, around, and about the precincts of language. I am not anti-symbolic any more than I am pro-semiotic.” Rather I am interpolated in their folds, knowing one through the other, and hearing the echo of each in the next. This is what I mean to evoke by “a/orality” – sound language, language grounded in its embodiments.
Human consciousness has as much a sedimentary as a developmental disposition; stages don’t so much replace each other as infiltrate or interpenetrate – I want to say perform – each other. Consciousness is a compost heap, to borrow a term from Jed Rasula. Neither the symbolic stage nor the rise of literacy marks language’s de-absorption in the world. Language itself, speech itself, is a technology, a tool, that, from the first cultures to the first responses to the cry of a baby, allows us to make our way on the earth by making a world of it. The iconic sound shape of language beats the path.
Iconicity recognizes the ability
of language to present its meaning rather than to represent or designate
it. The meaning is not something that accompanies the words but is performed
by them. Performance has the potential to foreground the inexorable and
“counterlogical” verbalness of poetry – “thickening the medium” by increasing
“the disparity between itself and its referents.”  When sound ceases to follow sense, when,
that is, it makes sense of sound, then we touch on the matter of
language.  This is
the burden of poetry; this is why poetry matters.
Sound, like poetry “itself,” can never be completely recuperated as ideas, as content, as narrative, as extralexical meaning. The tension between sound and logic reflects the physical resistance in the medium of poetry. Rime’s reason – the truth of sound – is that meaning is rooted in the arationality of sound, as well as in the body’s multiple capacities for signification. Language is extra-lexical, goes beyond sense, and nothing shows this better than verbal performance, which, like the soundless performance of the body, exceeds what seems necessary to establish the substantive content of the poem – what it is saying, its metaphors and allusions.
In sounding language, we
sound the width and breadth and depth of human consciousness – we find
our bottom and our top, we find the scope of our ken. In sounding language
we ground ourselves as sentient, material beings, obtruding into the world
with the same obdurate thingness as rocks or soil or flesh. We sing the
body of language, relishing the vowels and consonants in every possible
sequence. We stutter tunes with no melodies, only words.
Poetry readings, like reading
aloud (and this is something most explicitly marked in sound poetry),
are a performance of the carnality of language – its material, sensuous
embodiment. But this bodily grounding of language is not a cause for celebration
any more than it is a reason for repression: it is a condition of human
being and a fundamental material for poetry; call it language’s animalady.
Yet, in the present cultural context of the late twentieth century, this
animalady loses its force as concrete experience when reified as (represented)
speech or sentimentalized as (a return to) orality. The most resonant
possibilities for poetry as a medium can be realized only when the performance
of language moves from human speech to animate, but transhuman, sound:
that is, when we stop listening and begin to hear; which is to say, stop
decoding and begin to get a nose for the sheer noise of language.
The reading is the site in
which the audience of poetry constitutes and reconstitutes itself. It
makes itself visible to itself. And while the most attention had been
paid to those moments when the poetry reading has been a means for poetry
to cross over to a wider audience – as in the antiwar and other politically-oriented
readings of the 1960s or in some of the performance poetry of the present
moment – the fundamental, social significance of the reading, it seems
to me, has to do with infrastructure not spectacle. For this reason I
would turn around the familiar criticism that everyone at a poetry reading
is a poet to say that this is just what is vital about a reading series,
even the essence of the poetry reading. For poetry is constituted dialogically
through recognition and exchange with an audience of peers, where the
poet is not performing to invisible readers or listeners but actively
exchanging work with other performers and participants. This is not to
say that reading series geared to a more “general” public or to students
are not valuable. Of course they are. But such events resemble nonpoetry
performances in that their value is dissemination to an unknown audience
more than creation and exchange. They are not the foundries of poetry
that a more introverted reading series can be. Poetry, oddly romanticized
as the activity of isolated individuals writing monological lyrics, is
among the most social and socially responsive – dialogic – of contemporary
art forms. The poetry reading is an ongoing convention of poetry, by poetry,
for poetry. In this sense, the reading remains one of the most participatory
forms in American cultural life. Indeed, the value of the poetry reading
as a social and cultural form can be partly measured by its resistance,
up to this point, to reification or commodification. It is a measure
of its significance that it is ignored. That is, the (cultural) invisibility
of the poetry reading is what makes its audibility so audacious. Its relative
absence as an institution makes the poetry reading the ideal site for
the presence of language – for listening and being heard, for hearing
and for being listened to.
[*]Cardenal, “Song 56” (early 13th century), quoted in Gregory Nagy, Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); tr. Nagy, based on W. Pfeffer’s The Change of Philomel: The Nightingale in Medieval Literarture. Spicer, “Thing Language” in Language in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975), p. 217
 There are only two collections that I have been able to locate that address the poetry reading: Poets on Stage: The Some Symposium on Poetry Readings, edited by Alan Zielger, Larry Zirlin, and Harry Greenberg in 1978 and The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium on Language and Performance, ed. Stephen Vincent and Ellen Zweig in 1981. The accounts of poetry readings in these pioneering collections are largely anecdotal. Also notable are the annual reports for 1981 and 1982 of San Francisco’s 80 Langton Street Residency Program, assembled by Renny Pritikin, Barrett Watten, and Judy Moran, which provided a number sustained accounts, by different writers, of a series of talks and readings and performances at the space. More recently, the Poetics List, an electronic discussion group archived at the Electronic Poetry Center (http:/epc.buffalo.edu) often features accounts of readings and conferences (including lists of those in attendance at readings and even the occasional fashion report). In contrast, reflecting standard academic practice, there is no mention of Wallace Stevens’s recorded poetry performance in a recent book on the poet by Anca Rosu, but there is some irony in this given the book’s auspicious title, The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995), which only goes to show that metaphysics tends to displace physics.
 See Jerome Rothenberg, “The Poetics of Performance,” in Vincent and Zweig, p. 123. See also David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Pantheon, 1996), pp. 241-250.
 William Harris, The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985), pp. 109-110; Harris extracts portions of the text, from which I quote below. See also Harris’s interview with Baraka, where the poet agrees that his poem is a score and says he is principally interested in performance — “[the text] is less important to me” (p. 147). Harris briefly discusses Baraka’s performances on pp. 59-60. See especially his discussion of the relation of music and dance to Baraka’s work, starting on p. 106.
 See Nathaniel Mackey, “Other: From Noun to Verb,” in Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
 The passage is based on Andrew Benjamin, “Translating Origins: Psychoanalysis and Philosophy” in Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology, ed. Lawrence Venuti (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 24; all the references to poetry are my substitutions made to Benjamin’s “original”; I have also elided a few phrases. See also Benjamin’s The Plural Event: Descartes, Hegel, Heidegger.
 Nagy, p. 16. Nagy specifically sites McGann’s work on “the textual condition.”
 Nagy, p. 9; his emphasis. Quoted from Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 100. Dennis Tedlock’s contribution to this collection is relevant here.
 This qualification is in response to a comment by Dennis Tedlock on this passage. Tedlock emphasizes that writing is also a performance and as such readily open to variation and revision. I am also grateful to other suggestions by Tedlock, which I have incorporated into the essay.
 Charles Lock, “Petroglyphs In and Out of Perspective,” Semiotica 100:2/4 (1994), p. 418.
 I am well aware that prosodists can mask and analyze a performed poem in ways that will illustrate their particular theory (including quite conventional ones) – just as I have. This is no more than proper in such semantically dynamic terrain.
 The science of dysprosody is still in its infancy, although it is likely to dominate technical studies of unidentified poetic phenomena (UPPs) in the coming millennia. The Dysprosody Movement was founded by Carlo Amberio in 1950. A translation of its main theoretical document, The Dyssemia of Dystressed Syllables, from a previously undisclosed language into trochaic hexameter “blink” verse – a form Amberio believes to come closest to the counterintuitive thought patterns of unspoken American English – has long been forthcoming from the Center for the Advancement of Dysraphic Studies (CADS). (Blink verse, invented by Amberio, involves a fractal patterning of internal rhymes.)
 Giorgio Agamben, “The Idea of Prose,” in The Idea of Prose, tr. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 40. Agamben’s specific subject here is enjambment. Thanks to Carla Billitteri for bringing this essay to my attention.
 Henri Meschonnic, Critique du rythme: anthropologie historique du langage (Lagrasse: Verdier, 1982).
 Charles O. Hartman, Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). Shapiro is quoted from “English Prosody and Modern Poetry,” ELH, 14 (June 1947), p. 81. This is a good place to thank George Lakoff for pointing me in several useful directions.
 See Ernest Robson’s I Only Work Here (1975) and Transwhichics (1970), both from his own Primary Press in Parker Ford, Pennsylvania. On Robson, see Bruce Andrews’s “The Politics of Scoring” in Paradise and Method: Poetics & Practice (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp. 176-77.
 I am grateful to Professor Peters for providing me with relevant sections of his manuscript. In a chapter entitled “African-American Prosody: The Sermon as a Foundational Model,” he provides detailed descriptions for each of prosodic terms he employs.
 Reuven Tsur, What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive?: The Poetic Mode of Speech Perception (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992). See pp. 11-14.
 Barthes, Roland, Listening,” in The Responsibility of Forms, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985).
 Dennis Tedlock comments: “But there is nothing intrinsic to the alphabet that makes its effects on perception inevitable. Such writing has been used in many places and periods without any notion that it is an adequate or sufficient notation of the sounds of speech. What is rather as issue is the projection of phonemics (with its linear system of differences) back onto speech and its installation as the very foundation of a flattened (and ‘scientific’) conception of language. Yet we can recognize that the sounds coming from the next room are those of a person speaking without being able to distinguish any phonemes!” (Personal communication, September 1, 1996.)
 Julia Kristeva, The Revolution in Poetic Language, tr. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), pp. 25-27.
 In his article on petroglyphs, already cited, Lock critiques the term “prehistoric”: “Better, surely, to speak of ‘ahistoric’ … and then note that ‘ahistoric’ also serves well for ‘illiterate’; by the word ‘ahistoric’ we might avoid the pejorative, and the Darwinian tendency” (p. 407). Here I yet again switch frames from human history to human development.
 The lines are from “Blow-Me-Down Etude,” in my collection, Rough Trades (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991), p. 104.
 William K. Wimsatt, "On the Relation of Rhyme to Reason" in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), p. 217. Wimsatt is referring to poetry as text not to the performance of poetry.
 See Agamben, “The Idea of Matter,” p. 37.