Monday, January 31, 2005

I’m not particularly a fan of the Academy of American Poets, as bland a gathering of information on poets, good, bad or indifferent, as one might imagine. I’ve often wondered about what it takes to make a great subject tepid, but whatever that soporific elixir is, it’s been poured into the waters there.


Lately, tho, the Academy has been trying to shake itself awake, which is always a good thing, and is using its Poetry Almanac for one month of actual opinion. It would be wonderful if this were to become ongoing if only because there are seven or eight pieces in the January roster really worth reading & thinking about further, even if the background landscape continues to be painted in the pastel hues of the School of Quietude. A few months of this and we might see something more truly akin to the vast gumbo that is verse in these United States.


It was, in fact, one of the more conservative pieces – David Groff’s January 26th tome on the “Peril of the Poetry Reading” – that drew me to the series in the first place. Groff’s examples may stretch all the way from A (Richard Howard) to B (Billy Collins), but his underlying thesis is worth pondering nonetheless. There’s an essential – even obvious – correctness in the observation that what a reader can take in through hearing is very different from what can learned from the page. Anyone who has observed how children variously absorb information – this one visually, that one aurally – can see that these distinctions are not trivial. Such kids, even when they’re siblings, live in very different experiential worlds & that we can occasionally communicate at all can appear to me to be a miracle. I have at times thought that various genres in poetry might have at root just such learning styles and experiential orientations.


Groff and I have obviously have different aesthetics – the slow, breathless presentation of a narrative that yields what he calls the mmmm of an approving audience is, from my perspective, a flag of bad poetry, a uniformly embarrassing moment. Readings punctuated by such moments are to my mind cringe-a-thons. Likewise poets who read slowly strike me as pretentious and insincere, dumbing it down for an audience for whom they have no respect. It’s the signature gesture of dishonesty in a reading. But what if it is the only way some readers (and writers) can relate to the world?


Groff is certainly right that there are elements of the poem that just cannot be had by a member of an audience at a reading – I’m always painfully aware of how some elements of multiplicity flatten out when read aloud, the visual rhyme, say, between shamus & Camus. And there obviously is room for vast variation. One of the more interesting elements of attending any poetry conference in Russia is to discover poets who consciously avoid the theatrical declamatory reading styles associated with the Russian tradition – Arkadii Dragomoshchenko or Alexei Parshchikov, for example – right alongside somebody who takes that oral tradition to the max like Ivan Zhdanov. If you think of the flowing Miltonic chords struck by Robert Duncan’s verse in the 1960s alongside the halting enjambments of Robert Creeley’s poetry during that same period & keep in mind that both were perceived by just about everybody as instances of the “Black Mountain School,” you can get just a little glimpse of what I mean. So long as one actually engages the materials, it shouldn’t ultimately matter how one goes about writing. Groff is welcome to all the mmmms & aaahhs he can get.


If nothing else, someone like Homer ought to keep us page-bound wretches from becoming too glib about the advantages of print culture, as such, just as the flash tectonics of recent vispo reminds us that there is more to the eye than mere syntax. I of course want all of it – I think that Whitman gets that part of it right, exactly. But in the same moment, I know also my own limits. It seems improbable that any part of my new project, Universe, is going to entail flash technology or saxophones, unless it is strictly as a presentation setting. I can envision writing for a technologically enabled ink on smart paper so that simply reading the text literally transforms it. But I can also envision that technology being viable for about 20 years before it’s superceded by whatever wowzer comes along next. That’s the crux of my Blake Test & insistence on platform independence of the text. The poetry reading is itself a platform – it can never be the whole of poetry. But one literally can say the same about books.


So my quarrel with somebody like Groff wouldn’t be that he wants to read as slowly as he imagines his readers must think but rather that, in choosing a prescriptive approach to the question, he shuts off the possibility of alternate routes. I keep going back to that problem of how a visual kid is ever going to communicate with an aural one, keeping in mind that one aural kid may well focus on syntactic integration where another approaches everything first from the perspective of sound, so that one finds, finally, styles within styles within styles of relating to the world.