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L'arte orale

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Lorenzo Cardilli
, 
Stefano Lombardi Vallauri

The Performance of Poetry: Voice and Voicing in an Age of Writing

Jonathan Culler

Texte intégral

  • 1 M. Perloff, Introduction, in M. Perloff, C. Dworkin (eds.), The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Soun (...)

1In the introduction to The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, Marjorie Perloff declares, «Poetry inherently involves the structuring of sound», but «however central the sound dimension is to any and all poetry, no other poetic feature is currently as neglected»1. Redressing this may be one of the functions of this collection, to which I am happy to contribute. I am a firm believer in the centrality of sound to poetry, whether in effects such as those of Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne,

  • 2 P. Verlaine, Oeuvres poétiques, ed. by J. Robichez, Garnier, Paris 1969, p. 39.

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
     De l’autome
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
     Monotone2.

2or Wallace Stevens’s Bantams in Pinewoods:

  • 3 W. Stevens, Collected Poems, Faber, London 1955, p. 75.

Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!3

3For me a striking Italian example of musica verbale would be D’Annunzio’s La sera fiesolana. I do hesitate to submit these lines to a contemporary and sophisticated audience, who may find them sentimental and overwrought, but for the foreigner that I am, they are memorable and captivating:

  • 4 G. D’Annunzio, La sera fiesolana, in Id., Alcyone, Mondadori, Milan 1988, p. 27.

Fresche le mie parole ne la sera     a
ti sien come il fruscío che fan le foglie     b
del gelso ne la man di chi le coglie     b
silenzioso e ancor s’attarda a l’opra lenta     c
su l’alta scala che s’annera     a
contro il fusto che s’inargenta     c
con le sue rame spoglie     b
mentre la Luna è prossima a le soglie     b
cerule e par che innanzi a sé distenda un velo      d
ove il nostro sogno si giace […] 4     e

  • 5 A. Pope, The Essay on Criticism, in Id., Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. by J. Butt, Yale University (...)
  • 6 G.M. Hopkins, Poetry and Verse, in Id., The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. by H (...)
  • 7 G. Agamben, Idea della prosa, Quodlibet, Macerata 2002, p. 20; English trans., The Idea of Prose, (...)
  • 8 G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics, trans. by Th.M. Knox, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1975, p. 1031.

4In 1709 Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism declared «The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense»5, and since then this has been taken to heart as a principle of criticism: if you talk about sound at all, it should be to show how it reflects or supports meaning. Thus for D’Annunzio’s poem critics would like to hear in «il fruscío che fan le foglie» the rustle of mulberry leaves, but the play of sound here is generally independent of meaning with the rich echoing rhymes of foglie, coglie, spoglie, soglie, for instance, which do not correspond to anything in the scene but contribute affect while only echoing one another. That sound must support meaning has not in fact been a determining principle for writers of poems and songs, who since Hellenistic times have reveled in the play of sound for its own sake. Not only is there plenty of empirical evidence that sound in poetry often, quite marvelously, leads a life of its own, not subordinated to echoing or supporting the sense, but astute theorists of verse recognize this: the great 19th century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, writes, «Poetry is speech framed for contemplation of the mind by way of hearing or speech framed to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest in meaning. Some matter or meaning is essential to it but only as an element necessary to support and employ the shape which is contemplated for its own sake»6. And among thinkers of our day one could cite Giorgio Agamben who rejects the notion of the harmonious fusion of sound and sense: «quasi che, contrariamente a un diffuso pregiudizio, che vede in essa il luogo di una raggiunta, perfetta adesione fra suono e senso, la poesia vivesse, invece, soltanto del loro intimo discordo»7. Poetry rematerializes language, turning it back from speech to sound. For Renaissance poets, «vowel magic», the repetition of vowel sounds as in rhyme and assonance, is the better part of poetic eloquence. And Hegel, who preferred the austerity of unrhymed classical hexameters, admits to the erotic quality of rhyme as what particularly characterizes the post-medieval lyric: «it is as if the rhymes now find one another immediately, now fly from one another and yet look for one another, with the result that in this way the ear’s attentive expectation is now satisfied without more ado, now teased, deceived, or kept in suspense, owing to the longer delay between rhymes, but always contented again by the regular ordering and return of the same sounds»8.

5Whether the sound patterning, in its independence, is interpreted as in tension with the sense or as an independent structure of seduction often makes little difference. Here are the opening stanzas of one of Hopkins’ simpler poems, Inversnaid, about a mountain stream (a «burn»):

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

  • 9 G.M. Hopkins, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. by W.H. Gardner, N.H. Mackenzie, Oxford Universi (...)

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds despair to drowning9.

6In addition to the striking alliteration, the variation between single and double off-beats in lines with four beats generates a swinging rhythm in lines experienced as memorable and regular, even though the lines vary between seven and ten syllables. Is there a contrast between the regular drive of the rhythm and the wildness of the brook? Despite the obscurity of some of the language («in coop and in comb»? «flutes»?) the poem is experienced as highly evocative, though scarcely imitative of a wild brook.

  • 10 Editors' note: The author is referring to a part of Mario Gerolamo Mossa's presentation which has (...)

7Once one begins conceiving of the patterning of sound in poetry as offered for its own sake, the question of the relation to music, particularly to song, arises, for as we shall see in later papers – such as that on Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone10 – word choice in songs is often determined primarily by sound («Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime, in your prime…»). Or in Subterranean Homesick Blues:

Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don’t try ‘No-Doz’
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
[x] Keep a clean nose
[x] Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows11.

8These are songs where our seduction by the chiming of rhymes is accompanied by pleasure in the incongruous juxtapositions they produce.

9I will say more later about the relations between text and sound in poetry, but I am particularly committed to the analogy between poems and songs, which seems to me useful in several respects.

  • 12 P. Valéry, Poésie et pensée abstraite, in Id., Oeuvres, ed. by J. Hytier, Gallimard, Paris 1957, v (...)

10First of all, poems, like songs, should be memorable; they want to be heard again, repeated, internalized, and in both cases we have very little idea of what actually makes them memorable. What makes a tune catchy, so that it sticks in your mind and makes you want to hum it? And what about poems? What is it that makes them, as Valéry says, want to be heard again?12 In the case of poems, we often imagine that it is the thought that counts, but with songs, we know that this is not the case: it’s not profundity of the thought that matters: «She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.» «You ain’t nothing but a hound dog!» Is there a lesson here for poetry?

11Second, people can develop considerable expertise, connoisseurship, about songs without spending any time interpreting. They come to know what they like and dislike and can argue with their friends about the relative virtues of the Beatles or the Stones (in my day) or Justin Bieber and Katy Perry today, or of a particular tune, or different artists’ covers of a song. And I think there is a lesson here concerning poetry. Children generally like poetry. They are enthralled by the rhythms, the rhymes, and perhaps by the nonsense that adults permit themselves in this genre, but by the time they reach university, many say that they dislike poetry, although they continue to be seduced by and to admire the intensely rhythmical, rhyming language of rap, for example. They have gone off poetry, I suspect, because the treatment of poetry in schools is often to make it an object of interpretation: what is this poem really about? What does this language symbolize? I believe that if we treated poetry more as we treat song, as a patterning of sound, as something requiring performance, and seeking our attention, our adhesion, asking us to take it in, and repeat it, we would find our students much more receptive.

  • 13 J.-L. Nancy, A l’Ecoute, Galilée, Paris 2002, p. 34.

12For anyone committed to the priority of sound and sound patterning in poetry, the question of the relation between text and oral performance is crucial, but I should note that while I am interested in the strange relations between poetic texts and the history of their performance by poets themselves, which I shall discuss in a moment, for me the most crucial performance is by readers, whether vocalizing audibly or subvocalizing only. Poems exist above all as iterable experience of readers who give them voice. To paraphrase Jean-Luc Nancy, text is there before and after I encounter it, but sound arrives as an event13.

13But, as I say, I am interested in the relations between text, sound and performance that have developed in the culture of poetry over the past century, and if I speak particularly about poetry culture of the United States, it is not that I take it to be exemplary but simply that here I have relevant knowledge. The most salient fact, perhaps, is that beginning with Modernism, the majority of Anglophone poets with serious aspirations have abandoned an investment in sound-patterning. Often this involves a rejection also of traditional poetic meters and forms, but even those poets who have continued to write “in form,” as our creative writing students put it, or still employ rhyme, do not seem to seek aural effects. (As a result, for example, the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, with its foregrounding of chiming and rhyming, is taken as an example of jejune, facile seeking after effects, the sort of thing that foreigners may appreciate but should not be emulated by serious poets.) The commitment to intensely rhythmical, rhyming language, with its various sorts of sound play, is increasingly excluded from mainstream poetry and has migrated to popular forms such as rap and poetry slams.

  • 14 L. Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry, Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present, Cornell (...)
  • 15 J. Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-65, University of Chicago Press, Ch (...)
  • 16 M. Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, University of California (...)

14One interesting dimension of this shift lies in the history of the performance of poetry. In the late nineteenth century and first half of the 20th century in the US, school children memorized poems and performed them, sometimes as a classroom exercise, sometimes as punishment, sometimes on festive occasions, and at other times in competitions. It was taken for granted that poems were language to be performed, and that to perform well required training, practice. It was generally assumed, for example, that an author would not be the best reader of his or her own poems14. Professional performers gave public readings of poems, and poems were material for training in elocution. In the period between the wars there was even a growth of the practice of group recitation in Britain and the US: choral speaking or choral reading, as it was called. But after World War II the practice of memorization and public recitation virtually disappeared in American schools (despite some recent attempts to revive competitions in poetry recitation) and changes occurred in public poetry readings. Although celebrated performers such as Dylan Thomas gave dramatic, oratorical readings of famous poems by other authors as well as some of their own, increasingly public readings came to feature poets reading their own poems. Scholars attribute this shift partly to radio – people could hear poets reading their own poems so didn’t need to hear others performing them. But it also occurs as part of a broader process of breaking with the notion that a poem is a text to be read silently. As James Breslin writes in From Modern to Contemporary, the late 50’s «saw the emergence of an anti-formalist revolt», a renunciation of the well-made poem, by Beat poets, Confessional poets, Black Mountain poets, and New York School poets. Poetic authority came to be located not in the cultural tradition but in the literal reality of a physical moment15. Michael Davidson writes of the «new oral impulse of the late 50s and 60s», where «orality signifies unmediated access to passional states, giving testimony to that which only this poet could know»16. Allen Ginsberg reports a sort of conversion experience:

  • 17 A. Ginsberg, Notes for Howl and other Poems, in D. Allen (ed.), The New American Poetry, 1945-1960(...)

I thought I wouldn’t write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy and scribble magic lines from my real mind – sum up my life –… So the first line of Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation” etc. the whole first section typed out madly in one afternoon, a huge sad comedy of wild phrasings, meaningless images17.

15A performance of Howl in 1955 in San Francisco is heralded as the key moment in the rise of the poetry reading as anti-establishment performance. Howl begins:

  • 18 A. Ginsberg, Howl, in Howl and Other Poems, City Lights, San Francisco (Ca) 1956, p. 9.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull, […] 18

16Beat poets and anti-war poets in the 1960s (during the Vietnam War) made poetry readings dramatic events: LeRoi Jones, a Black experimental writer who hung out with Ginsburg and the Beats, in 1966 changed his name to Amiri Baraka and offered dramatic political performances of poetry. Here is Stellar Niotic, understandably better known by its epigraph: You Gotta Have Freedom.

  • 19 A. Baraka, S.O.S., Poems 1961-2013, Grove Press, New York 2014, p. 167. For a recording of Baraka (...)

                              You want to know
How I escaped? (There were bright yellow lights now, and red
                              flashes.)
can we talk here? Are we all ex-slaves? (a laughter
ruins the dawn silence, and the birds acknowledge us
with their rap of flutes).
That star, just over the grey green peak (the moonlight
acknowledges us and makes us shadows) was how I was led
A slender black woman, around 23, put out her hand, turning
toward the star. You know how night is, the star was blue and
beautiful. Around it music, we drummed through the forests.
Their ignorance, that country of “Their” and its united snakes
unified in madness and worship of advantage. You cannot
have aristocracy, except you have slaves.
They teach you that.
Yet our going, our breathing, the substance
of our lives, was with us chanting
against whatever was not cool.
This was always, and remains
a foreign land. And we are
undoubtedly, the slaves. […]19

  • 20 J. Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary, p. 66.
  • 21 Ch. Olson, Projective Verse, in Collected Prose, ed. by D. Allen, B. Friedlander, University of Ca (...)

17But more influential than Ginsburg in this shift to the notion of poem as text for vocalization (since Ginsburg was understandably seen as herald of a particular movement, Beat poets) is Charles Olson, a poet whose manifesto, Projective Verse, of 1950 was taken up by many poets, reprinted in Donald Allen’s influential anthology, New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (and also heavily excerpted in William Carlos William’s Autobiography). James Breslin writes, «The influence of Olson as theorist, and particularly of the Projective Verse essay, is hard to overestimate»20. For me this manifesto is particularly interesting because it embodies some of the paradoxes and ambiguities of a poetry claiming priority for voice and performance, while jettisoning traditional metrical form, which Olson calls «that verse which print bred»21. It raises questions about the relationship between sound and writing in poetry.

  • 22 Ibid., p. 240.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 245.
  • 24 Ch. Olson, The Human Universe, in Collected Prose, p. 162.

18Olson offers himself as the champion of voice and breath, as sources of poetic energy: «The poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge»22. This involves a break with tradition: «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»23. The poem is a discharge of energy, kinetic, and «there is only one thing you can do about kinetic, re-enact it». «Art», he repeats, «does not seek to describe but to enact»24. Olson hammers away about breath, as he puts it, in order

  • 25 Ch. Olson, Projective Verse, pp. 241-242.

to insist upon a part that breath plays in verse which has not (due, I think, to the smothering of the power of the line by too set a concept of foot) has not been sufficiently observed or practiced, but which has to be if verse is to advance to its proper force and place in the day, now, and ahead. I take it that PROJECTIVE VERSE teaches, is, this lesson, that that verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressure of his breath. […] And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breath of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes […] only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line, its metric, and its ending – where its breathing, shall come to, termination25.

  • 26 Ibid., p. 244.

19Here there is emphasis on the poem as something dynamic, not a mere written text, but rather directly linked to the poet’s breath and voice. This goes along with Olson’s commitment to performance, the sense that the poem only truly exists in performance. And though breath sometimes seems metaphorical, his “hammering” on the concept seems designed to make it as literal as possible, as though the breath of the poet is present in the poem’s performance, in the experience of the poem. «Breath allows all the speech-force of language back in», he writes26.

  • 27 R. von Hallberg, Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Ma) 1978, (...)
  • 28 Ch. Olson, Projective Verse, p. 239.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 246.

20Robert von Hallberg notes that «for Olson pure experience is to replace the dead letter of the written text»27. This aspect of the manifesto was extremely influential in various quarters, perhaps especially since Olson presents himself as championing what he identifies as a trend in contemporary poetry that will insure its future: «Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes»28. Poets must pick up «the already projective nature of verse as the sons of Pound and Williams are practicing it. Already they are composing as though verse was to have the reading its writing involved, as though not the eye but the ear was to be its measurer….»29.

  • 30 W. Carlos Williams, The Poem as a Field of Action, in Id., Selected Essays of William Carlos Willi (...)

21But in resisting the dead verse of the grid-like page, which does not embody the breath of the poet, Olson also champions what he calls «composition by field», after William Carlos Williams, who called the poem «a field of action»30.

  • 31 Ch. Olson, Projective Verse, p. 239.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 245.

22He urges poets to work «in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the ‘old’ base of the non-projective»31. This requires the stress on breath, breath groups, in composition, as he has already emphasized, but in practical terms it involves the spatial disposition of words on the page, just not in old fixed forms. «If a contemporary poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the breath, an equal length of time»32. And here the typewriter is of great value:

  • 33 Ibid., p. 245.

It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, [every letter or space of equal width] it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtaposition even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work33.

  • 34 Eleanor Berry argues that projective verse is accomplished «in large part through visual form». E. (...)

23Thus, although projective verse is focused on breath groups and performance, it is through spatial disposition of print, the breaking of lines or the insertion of blank spaces to represent pauses, that the poem can embody this “listening” that the poet does to his own breath and poetic discourse. It seems that projective verse requires print to make the text truly a score for performance: a score that indicates how to sound the lines so that they capture the breath of the poet34.

24Olson performs his poems with pauses, but actually his practice is not very radical or distinctive. Here is part 1 of one of his most famous poems, The Kingfishers:

What does not change / is the will to change

He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He
remembered only one thing, the birds, how
when he came in, he had gone around the rooms
and got them back in their cage, the green one first,
she with the bad leg, and then the blue,
the one they had hoped was a male

Otherwise? Yes, Fernand, who had talked lispingly of Albers & Angkor Vat.
He had left the party without a word. How he got up, got into his coat,
I do not know. When I saw him, he was at the door, but it did not matter,
he was already sliding along the wall of the night, losing himself
in some crack of the ruins. That it should have been he who said, “The kingfishers!
who cares
for their feathers
now?”

His last words had been, “The pool is slime.” Suddenly everyone,
ceasing their talk, sat in a row around him, watched
they did not so much hear, or pay attention, they
wondered, looked at each other, smirked, but listened,
he repeated and repeated, could not go beyond his thought
“The pool the kingfishers’ feathers were wealth why
did the export stop?”

  • 35 Ch. Olson, The Kingfishers, in Id., Selected Writings of Charles Olson, ed. by R. Creeley, Grove, (...)

It was then he left35.

25As I say, his performance is not radical in its marking of breath or the use of space, but what interests me above all are the tensions within Olson’s manifesto for Projective Verse. We have two forces here in Olson: the demand for the poem to be a kinetic event, a vigorous performance, and the break with conventional spatial disposition of poems in regular lines or stanzas. While Olson claims that they go together – the spatial disposition as a way of capturing the kinetics of the performed poem – after the 1970s they did not tend to go together. There were still poets who performed dramatically, such as Amiri Baraka. But for the most part poets of a wide range of schools, came to see their poems as texts (sometimes texts that could scarcely be read, as in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry) and poetry readings came to be not performances but instead rather distanced presentations of what are explicitly presented as texts. (At the same time, recordings made widely available poems read by their authors, and this fostered the idea that if someone was going to read a poem aloud, it should be the author – as though this was somehow the authentic presentation.)

  • 36 L. Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry, p. 140.
  • 37 See also, Ch. Grobe, On Book: The Performance of Reading, «New Literary History», 47/4 (2016), pp. (...)

26Poetry readings are now a staple of university literature programs and cultural centers in the US and UK. Poets make the rounds; it is part of being a successful poet to get invitations and collect substantial fees. But «poets perform the fact that they are not performers»36. They stand in front of their audience, at a lectern, in deliberately drab, ordinary clothes, with a book or loose pages from which they read – no pretense of not reading, seldom a gesture, and often with bland distancing remarks, such as, «This is something I wrote in 1995». «Wearing “neutral colors”, treating their bodies as “neutral instrument[s]”, poets speak in a “carefully neutral” way. […] [I]t is performance itself they are hoping to neutralize»37. When America’s most famous contemporary poet, John Ashbery, reads his well-known poem, They Dream Only of America – a poem which would certainly benefit from some expressive speech contours to mark quotations, irony, and so on – he gives a deliberately flat performance.

They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
“This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.”

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily–
The lake a lilac cube.

He holds a key in his right hand.
“Please,” he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.
That was before

We could drive hundreds of miles
At night through dandelions.
When his headache grew worse we
Stopped at a wire filling station.

Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.

“I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.

  • 38 J. Ashbery, Collected Poems, 1956-1987, ed. by M. Ford, Library of America, New York 2008, pp. 44- (...)

And I am lost without you.”38

  • 39 P. Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry, Un (...)
  • 40 J. Roubaud, Prelude, in M. Perloff, C. Dworkin (eds.), The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, p. (...)
  • 41 B. Engler, Reading and Listening, The Modes of Communicating Poetry and their Influence on the Tex (...)

27Oral performance of course actually involves intonation, pitch, tempo, accent, grain or timbre of voice, non-verbal expression and movement as well as prosodic features of the language, and so is in principle richer than text, but mainstream poets perversely refuse to exploit these possibilities, explicitly shut them down. As Peter Middleton observes, If the poet performs, what he performs is authorship, which is the fact of having written this text, not performing it, not trying to animate it. The speakers’ bodily presence is the warrant for these words39. Jacques Roubaud notes that in the 50s and 60s American poetry had recovered lost orality, with Ginsburg, Creeley and others. But today poetry is read by performers as if prose: «nearly every single reader – a multinational poet in this context – solves the problem of how to read his or her poems out loud in an extremely simple way. They read them exactly as if they were reading prose»40. This applies to Ashbery’s poem, except that this poem is so disjointed that you cannot really make it sound like prose – when performed it is just flat poetry. For me the puzzle is that today’s poets have given considerable attention to the spatial disposition on the page – where will there be line-breaks, where will they revert to the margin, where will they scatter the words across the page, as Olson urges – but then make no effort to capture this when they read, refusing to make the text a script for performance, as Olson wished41. The result is a grossly impoverished experience of the poem. A most striking example for me, though from earlier in the twentieth century, is William Carlos Williams, whose Red Wheelbarrow involves careful visual disposition on the page.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

  • 42 W. Carlos Williams, The Red Wheelbarrow, in Id., Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, ed. b (...)

beside the white
chickens42.

28The pattern is three words, line break, one word, stanza break; and a line break even separates wheel from barrow. Are these instructions for breath groups, as one would imagine? No. When performing his poem, Williams runs straight through, as if it were continuous prose43.

29Jed Rasula comments on the phenomenon of the contemporary performance of poetry by American poets:

  • 44 J. Rasula, Understanding the Sound of Not Understanding, in Ch. Bernstein (ed.), Close Listening: (...)

Recently there has been a flight from or an evasion of sound, particularly the sounds that would awaken an understanding of that not-understanding which is so consistently bound up with poetry’s heritage. [I will clarify this below.] Contemporary (or post-Vietnam) American poetry has developed a laconic, speech-oriented vocalization, wary of the narcotic blur of panegyric intonation and liturgical recitative. This idiomatic plainness reflects a semantic penury, a ‘commonsense’ appearance encoded thematically to vindicate those who have felt threatened by the claims of a presentient sound world, the “raw being” of language44.

  • 45 Ibid., p. 55.

30I don’t know about the threat of a presentient sound-world, but I think there is a definite wariness about seeming pretentious, vatic: an embarrassment that if one tried to perform one’s poems one might look foolish. Rasula continues «to listen to the varieties of modern poetry reading is to encounter a version of poets’ fear of poetry as such, or a fear of what poetry might become if words wander too far off the page, and meanings drift apart from the words»45. This seems very true, a shrewd diagnostic. For what Rasula calls the «understanding of that not-understanding which is so consistently bound up with poetry’s heritage», think of songs, where we come to feel the rightness of lyrics without understanding, as in Dylan’s «Walk on your tip toes / Don’t try no doz / Better stay away from those / That carry around a fire hose», or in the example from Hopkins earlier about the brook: «in coop and in comb the fleece of his foam / Flutes» What is it for the fleece of his foam to flute? We may not be able to explain what this is actually referring to but we understand it as compelling.

31In poetry readings these days you mainly experience the fact that you are in the presence of a poet and can go off and read the poems afterwards. You get some sense of the people – are they tall, short, young, old, hairy, bald, neat, disheveled; what sort of timbre has their voice, what kind of accent? – things that do not come across on the page. But there is resistance to auditory effects; intensity would seem embarrassing. As I say, I understand this: if you are not an accomplished professional performer, you risk embarrassment if you throw yourself into performing your poem, but it is too bad for poetry that we leave performance to hip hop or slam poets and give up the pleasures of highly patterned language. Other poets do not do much with the voice, though they generally seem to imagine that readings give us access to the poetic voice.

32The notion of voice figures prominently in discussions of poetry, but in fact I find the term dangerously, confusingly ambiguous. One can make at least four distinctions.

  1. There is the physical voice, as when you recognize a friend’s voice on the phone as physically distinctive.
  2. For poets their voice means something more. The poet Steve McCaffrey speaks of voice as «primal identity», «presence»46. I take this to be the sense to which the poetry reading is supposed to minister but does not actually do so.Since we also speak of a poet finding or failing to find his or her voice, voice is not so much primal identity as an abstraction, an ideal, some distinctive manner of or in the writing which is missing in what the poet wrote before finding his or her voice.
  3. Then there is voice as vocalization, as when we give voice to a poem. This may go along with what McCaffery calls a second sense of voice (as opposed to primal identity) a «thanatic voice, triply destined to lines of flight and escape, to the expenditure of pulsional intensities, and to its own dispersal in sounds between body and language»47. I think that this sense is related to singer’s notion of their voice as an instrument. Something separate from them as person, as the violinist’s instrument is separate. As McCaffrey’s reference to death in “thanatic voice” indicates, this voice is less tied to a person than to what I call voicing, on which more shortly.
  • 48 P. de Man, The Lyrical Voice in Contemporary Theory, in C. Hošek, P. Parker (eds.), Lyric Poetry: (...)
  • 49 J.C. Ransom, The World’s Body, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (La) 1938, p. 254.

33Finally, 4, there is notion of a voice characteristic of an individual poem, based on a particular expressive model of lyric (inherited from Romanticism but modernized): the voice that speaks in a poem (not to be identified with that of the biographical poet). This sense of voice involves the notion that a lyric should be seen as spoken by a fictional persona, whose voice we hear in it. This has been an extremely influential notion in the theory and pedagogy of the lyric in Anglophone countries. In an essay critical of the notion of lyric, Paul de Man declared «the principle of intelligibility in lyric poetry depends upon the phenomenalization of the poetic voice»48, which is to say that to read a text as a lyric is to lend phenomenal form to something like a voice, to convince ourselves that in our vocalization of the text we are hearing a voice, repository of the attitudes that the poem is expressing. The pedagogical principle of Anglo-American New Criticism was articulated in 1938 by John Crowe Ransom: «The poet does not speak in his own but in an assumed character, not in the actual but in an assumed situation, and the first thing we do as readers of poetry is to determine precisely what character and what situation are assumed. In this examination lies the possibility of critical understanding and, at the same time, of the illusion and the enjoyment»49.

  • 50 Th. Arp, G. Johnson (eds.), Perrine’s Sound and Sense, 14th edition, Cengage, New York 2013, p. 27

34In the Anglo-American world, this principle has become the foundation of pedagogy of the lyric. The classic textbook Sound and Sense, in use since 1956, tells students, «To aid us in understanding a poem we may ask ourselves a number of questions about it. Two of the most important are Who is the speaker? and What is the occasion?» After reminding students that «Poems, like short stories, novels, and plays, belong to the world of fiction» and advising them to «assume always that the speaker is someone other than the poet», the textbook concludes: «We may well think of every poem, therefore, as in some degree dramatic – that is the utterance not of the person who wrote it but of a fictional character in a particular situation that may be inferred»50.

35But this quest for a voice that speaks in a poem is a very dubious general principle: for many poems trying to imagine what voice we hear turns us away from the most important features of the poem. Consider again William Carlos Williams’ So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, which I recently evoked.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

36We could certainly speculate: who is speaking? what voice do we hear? Is it a farmer, a gardener, an aesthete? Writing about this poem, Hugh Kenner challenges critics to try out various voices:

  • 51 H. Kenner, A Homemade World, Knopf, New York 1975, pp. 59-60.

Try to imagine an occasion for this sentence to be said: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.” Try it over, in any voice you like: it is impossible […] And to go on with the dialogue? To whom might the sentence be spoken, for what purpose? […] Not only is what the sentence says banal, if you heard someone say it you’d wince. But hammered on the typewriter into a thing made, and this without displacing a single word except typographically, the sixteen words exist in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings51.

37He adds, «Yet you do say, you do go through the motions of saying. But art lifts the saying out of the zone of things said».

  • 52 R. Greene, Post-Petrarchism: Origins and Innovations of the Western Lyric Sequence, Princeton Univ (...)

38If you focus on identifying a voice you are distracted from the central question of why the poem is written with the words disposed in this way. In my Theory of the Lyric I take up Roland Greene’s distinction between the ritualistic and fictional dimensions of lyrics and lyric sequences52. The fictional consists of representations of plot and character and the ritualistic is everything that can be construed as directions for performance, for voicing by readers. When we encourage students to assume that the poem is the fictional imitation of a real-world speech act and to ask who is speaking, in what situation (taking the poem as the expression of a voice), we not only encourage them to focus on the fictional dimension, neglecting all the things that make the poem a poem and not an anecdote, but we also encourage them to trivialize the poem by relativizing its assertions to the situation of a particular fictional speaker. No longer is it a puzzling claim about the world but the musings of, for example, an imagined gardener who really loves his red wheelbarrow.

39For me the notion of voice is one best avoided because of its multiple meanings, not so easy to keep clear or to distinguish; but even more important is a distinction between voice and voicing, the operation in which the sound patterning of poetry is brought to the fore, activated.

  • 53 A. Easthope, Poetry as Discourse, Methuen, London 1983, pp. 64-77. This book is often criticized, (...)

40In fact, in the case of lyric poetry, we could venture a rule of thumb: that the greater the effects of aural patterning – alliteration, assonance, rhyme, rhythm – the less mimesis of voice. We could say, then that on the one hand, there are poems where metrical beating and sound-patterning dominate and which characteristically do not project a speaker, such as limericks, nursery rhymes, and a wide range of other poems, from medieval ballads to Hopkins’ Inversnaid or Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow. On the other hand, there are poems where the rhythmic movement of phrasing, working against the pulse of meter, produces the image of voice, the idea of a speaking subject. Historically iambic pentameter, the dominant meter for serious verse in English, has been linked with hearing a “voice,” and thus the representation of the speaking subject as individual53. This is not wholly unjustified. In iambic pentameter, the uneven number of stresses make it harder for it to resolve into binary contrasts, so that it can evoke speech and a voice (albeit somewhat formal speech):

  • 54 W. Shakespeare, Sonnet # 116, in Id., The Sonnets, ed. by S. Orgel, Penguin, London 2001, p. 119.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
That alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove54.

41Four-beat meters in English, on the other hand – tetrameter – used in a wide range of more popular forms as well as in much literary verse, produce a position of enunciation not marked as that of an individual subject or voice and thus impersonal or potentially collective. Four-beat popular meters make available a collective subject position, and one joins that position as one chants or repeats, as in nursery rhymes:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

42or

Twinkle, Twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

43We are not inclined to ask who is speaking here or to try to posit a person from the image of voice, and much of the pleasure comes from participating in that implicitly collective position, as in Hopkins’ Inversnaid or William Blake’s famous «Tyger, Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night».

44For me much of the pleasure of poetry derives from such effects of voicing, which are by no means confined to poems with short lines. Much 20th century poetry in English has shunned such effects, ceding it to popular forms, but it is striking that poets in the midcentury revived the villanelle and did not abandon the sonnet with its rhyming and chiming, but they do abandon the performance of poetry and the vital energy that it displays when one really gives voice to poems.

  • 55 Letter of 21 August, 1877, The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, Oxford Universi (...)

45Let me conclude to make my point with the recital/performance of a great poem by Hopkins, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo. Hopkins declares, «My verse is less to be read than heard, as I have told you before; it is oratorical, that is the rhythm is so»55.

46The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo is a religious poem (Hopkins was a Jesuit priest) which tells us that the only way to combat the ravages of time is to give up beauty to God, who will see to it that the resurrection the body will preserve us yonder, in perfection, for eternity («not the least lash lost, every hair, hair of the head numbered»). For me is it a splendid example of the way that the play of poetic language, the chiming of alliteration and assonance, seduces even when the meaning is one I reject or dismiss as wishful fantasy. It is a poem of linguistic proliferation, even though the ultimate message is that everything will be fixed in eternal perfection. A slam poet would have no hesitation about throwing himself into these verbal fireworks, but for the rest of us there is the risk of embarrassment and one understands why serious poets prefer not to perform but just to read out their poems. Still a lot is lost. This is a long poem, but it is very much worth reading while listening to Richard Burton’s clipped, almost breathless rendition of it or Dylan Thomas’s oracular performance56.

the leaden echo

HOW to kéep–is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankèd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?–
No there’s none, there’s none, O no there’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there’s none; no no no there’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.

the golden echo

  • 57 G.M. Hopkins, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, p. 91.

                         Spare!
There is one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air.
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Ońe. Yes I can tell such a key, I dó know such a place,
Where whatever’s prizèd and passes of us, everything that’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an ever-lastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maidengear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace–
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then whý should we tread? O why are we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept. –Where kept? do but tell us where kept, where. –
Yonder.–What high as that! We follow, now we follow. –
Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,
Yonder.57

47I think what we need is a return to the rhapsodes of Ancient Greece, who were professional reciters or performers of poems, able to exploit the full possibilities of oral art that modern poets are too timid or too embarrassed to pursue.

Notes

1 M. Perloff, Introduction, in M. Perloff, C. Dworkin (eds.), The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (Il) 2009, p. 1.

2 P. Verlaine, Oeuvres poétiques, ed. by J. Robichez, Garnier, Paris 1969, p. 39.

3 W. Stevens, Collected Poems, Faber, London 1955, p. 75.

4 G. D’Annunzio, La sera fiesolana, in Id., Alcyone, Mondadori, Milan 1988, p. 27.

5 A. Pope, The Essay on Criticism, in Id., Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. by J. Butt, Yale University Press, New Haven (Ct) 1963, line 365, p. 155.

6 G.M. Hopkins, Poetry and Verse, in Id., The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. by H. House, G. Storey, Oxford University Press, London 1957, p. 289.

7 G. Agamben, Idea della prosa, Quodlibet, Macerata 2002, p. 20; English trans., The Idea of Prose, State University of New York Press, Albany (Ny) 1995, p. 40: «Contrary to 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».

8 G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics, trans. by Th.M. Knox, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1975, p. 1031.

9 G.M. Hopkins, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. by W.H. Gardner, N.H. Mackenzie, Oxford University Press, London 1967, p. 89.

10 Editors' note: The author is referring to a part of Mario Gerolamo Mossa's presentation which has not been included in the volume chapter.

11 B. Dylan, <http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/subterranean-homesick-blues/>. [x] marks a virtual beat.

12 P. Valéry, Poésie et pensée abstraite, in Id., Oeuvres, ed. by J. Hytier, Gallimard, Paris 1957, vol. 1, p. 1325.

13 J.-L. Nancy, A l’Ecoute, Galilée, Paris 2002, p. 34.

14 L. Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry, Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present, Cornell University Press, Ithaca (Ny) 2008, p. 4. For an excellent history of poetry and performance in schools and communities, see J.S. Rubin, Songs of Ourselves, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Ma) 2007.

15 J. Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-65, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1983, pp. xiv-xv, 60.

16 M. Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, University of California Press, Berkeley (Ca) 1997, p. 197.

17 A. Ginsberg, Notes for Howl and other Poems, in D. Allen (ed.), The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Grove, New York 1960, p. 415.

18 A. Ginsberg, Howl, in Howl and Other Poems, City Lights, San Francisco (Ca) 1956, p. 9.

19 A. Baraka, S.O.S., Poems 1961-2013, Grove Press, New York 2014, p. 167. For a recording of Baraka reading this poem, see PennSound: <https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Baraka/06-14-85/13_Baraka-Amiri_You-Gotta-Have-Freedom_Allentown-Community-Center-Reading_Buffalo-NY_06-14-65.mp3>.

20 J. Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary, p. 66.

21 Ch. Olson, Projective Verse, in Collected Prose, ed. by D. Allen, B. Friedlander, University of California Press, Berkeley (Ca) 1997, p. 239.

22 Ibid., p. 240.

23 Ibid., p. 245.

24 Ch. Olson, The Human Universe, in Collected Prose, p. 162.

25 Ch. Olson, Projective Verse, pp. 241-242.

26 Ibid., p. 244.

27 R. von Hallberg, Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Ma) 1978, p. 32.

28 Ch. Olson, Projective Verse, p. 239.

29 Ibid., p. 246.

30 W. Carlos Williams, The Poem as a Field of Action, in Id., Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, New Directions, New York 1954.

31 Ch. Olson, Projective Verse, p. 239.

32 Ibid., p. 245.

33 Ibid., p. 245.

34 Eleanor Berry argues that projective verse is accomplished «in large part through visual form». E. Berry, The Emergence of Charles Olson’s Prosody of Page Space, «Journal of English Linguistics», 30/1 (2002), p. 51.

35 Ch. Olson, The Kingfishers, in Id., Selected Writings of Charles Olson, ed. by R. Creeley, Grove, New York 1966, p. 167. For his performance, see PennSound: <https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Olson/BMC-1954/Olson-and-Creeley_Black-Mountain_1954_Kingfisher%20I.mp3>.

36 L. Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry, p. 140.

37 See also, Ch. Grobe, On Book: The Performance of Reading, «New Literary History», 47/4 (2016), pp. 567-589 (see also L. Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry, pp. 128, 140).

38 J. Ashbery, Collected Poems, 1956-1987, ed. by M. Ford, Library of America, New York 2008, pp. 44-45. For his performance, see PennSound: <https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Ashbery/Living-Theatre-1963/Ashbery-John_14_They-Dream-Only-Of-America_The-Living-Theatre_9-16-63.mp3>

39 P. Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa (Al) 2008, pp. 33, 35.

40 J. Roubaud, Prelude, in M. Perloff, C. Dworkin (eds.), The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, p. 22.

41 B. Engler, Reading and Listening, The Modes of Communicating Poetry and their Influence on the Texts, Franke, Berlin 1982, p. 33. If text were a score for performance, poets should perform line breaks, but they usually do not.

42 W. Carlos Williams, The Red Wheelbarrow, in Id., Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, ed. by A. Walton Litz, Ch. MacGowan, New Directions, New York 1986, vol. 1, p. 224.

43 For an example of Williams’ reading of this poem, see PennSound: <https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Williams-WC/01_Columbia-Univ_01-09-42/Williams-WC_01_The-Red-Wheelbarrow_Columbia-Univ_01-09-42.mp3>.

44 J. Rasula, Understanding the Sound of Not Understanding, in Ch. Bernstein (ed.), Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, Oxford University Press, New York 1998, p. 55.

45 Ibid., p. 55.

46 S. McCaffrey, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics, Northwestern University Press, Evanston (Il) 2001, p. 161.

47 Ibid., p. 162.

48 P. de Man, The Lyrical Voice in Contemporary Theory, in C. Hošek, P. Parker (eds.), Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, Cornell University Press, Ithaca (Ny) 1985, p. 55.

49 J.C. Ransom, The World’s Body, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (La) 1938, p. 254.

50 Th. Arp, G. Johnson (eds.), Perrine’s Sound and Sense, 14th edition, Cengage, New York 2013, p. 27.

51 H. Kenner, A Homemade World, Knopf, New York 1975, pp. 59-60.

52 R. Greene, Post-Petrarchism: Origins and Innovations of the Western Lyric Sequence, Princeton University Press, Princeton (Nj) 1991, pp. 4-14. See J. Culler, Theory of the Lyric, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Ma) 2015, pp. 88-89, 122-125, 252-258, 263-264.

53 A. Easthope, Poetry as Discourse, Methuen, London 1983, pp. 64-77. This book is often criticized, but I imagine that it is his calling iambic pentameter a bourgeois form that has prompted criticism, for the general point that pentameter lends itself much more readily than four-beat meters to the impression of a speaking voice seems to me eminently defensible.

54 W. Shakespeare, Sonnet # 116, in Id., The Sonnets, ed. by S. Orgel, Penguin, London 2001, p. 119.

55 Letter of 21 August, 1877, The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1955, p. 46.

56 There are dramatically different performances of this poem, by Richard Burton <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhQwFf6Qb9U> and by Dylan Thomas <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AA0npYt0Wig>.

57 G.M. Hopkins, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, p. 91.

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