In Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky writes: “The reader is not merely the performer of the poem, but an actual, living medium for the poem” (DCV 61). Note the “merely,” implying that there’s a difference between being a “performer” and being an “actual, living medium” for the poem. But what’s the difference? Well: I’m still not entirely sure what performance means for Pinsky, but for me it means that you’re aware of your audience and you change the way you read or write in order to more efficiently and more pleasurably convey what you’re trying to convey. As for being an “actual, living medium for the poem”: for Pinsky, it means that “the medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth […] poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing” (The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide 8). Whose body? He says: “[…] not an expert’s body, as when one goes to the ballet: in poetry, the medium is the audience’s body. When I say to myself a poem […] the artist’s medium is my breath. The reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words” (TSP 8).
I’ve been thinking, on my own, about these things for quite some time. So when he came to visit my MFA workshop, I had a few questions ready. I asked him: “So, then, which is the poem? Is the poem the object on the page, the text? Or is it the thing that happens, in your voice, in your body, when you read it?” He said (more or less verbatim; I was too busy trying to look him in the eye to be taking notes): “I think—although some here may disagree,” and here he looked at our instructor (a long-time friend of his) and grinned, “the poem is in the voice, in the body; when you or I read Keats, long-dead Johnny Keats has voice again, a body again, lives again, through you and me” (Class discussion, April 24, 2011). And here I ought to have asked him other questions: “So what does that mean? Does that mean that each reading of the poem is a different thing? Is it a different version of the poem? A different instance? Or a different poem altogether? And what about performance? When you read a poem to yourself, aren’t you performing? For that matter, when you write a poem, aren’t you performing? Aren’t you then the ‘expert’s body’ and the ‘audience’s body’ both? And what, in that view, is the text? Is it what controls the body? Is it even still your body? Doesn’t an image of the poet’s body start to appear, cover yours like a ghostly overlay? Aren’t Keats’s lines the way they are in part because they were written by a slight, short, twenty-four year old Cockney male body dying of tuberculosis? Isn’t there a hint of decreasing lung capacity and fever in his vowels, and if so, when you pronounce those vowels—”
But the conversation had moved on.
So I got to the reading with lots of questions hovering around in the air like tiny anvil-head storm clouds. They’d mix and move, clump and separate, drift in front of my eyes and block them and buzz little lightnings in my ear till I could barely hear. The biggest one was this: if the poem is this private thing that happens within one’s body, this slipping-on of a voice, this adjustment of one’s larynx and lungs to the sounds indicated by the text—and if none of this has anything to do with performance—then why have poetry readings at all? The audience isn’t reading along with the reader, so (if we’re going by Pinsky’s definition, as I understand it) the poem isn’t happening for them; it’s not in them, their vocal cords aren’t moving, nobody but the person reading is giving the poem voice. For that matter, unless you’re Robert Pinsky or some rough equivalent, it’s likely that very few people in the audience are going to have any idea who you are, what your poem looks like on the page, what the poem feels like when it’s read to one’s self, why one should care, why one should bother to make the effort to understand, so you’re practically doomed (before you even begin) to accomplish nothing—
—if, that is, performance doesn’t have anything to do with the poem, if the poem is only that private thing, that bodily thing.
Which, on the whole, I am inclined to doubt. Because obviously poetry readings do do something; something like the private experience of reading a poem does happen—people laugh or blush or grow sad; if you’re in a non-academic venue they might tap their feet along with the beat or snap their fingers at a witty line or moan. And all of this in the way that they might, for instance, tap or snap or nod or shake in the shower while singing their favorite song to themselves. And all of this, I’m inclined to believe, also bearing some isomorphic relation to the way the poet’s body moved while they were writing, the poet’s nodding along to his or her own voice, the movement of the eyes and attention, the breath held while writing a sentence, the breath released, the flaring of the nostrils, the straightening of the back, the shaking leg. So it’s not just the giving-voice that is the experience of—that gives a body to—a poem, perhaps. It’s the listening, too. And the way I see it, where there’s listening involved on one side, and the awareness of listeners on the other, there has to be performance involved, as well.
Which is why I was listening for performance in Robert Pinsky’s reading. Or I would have been/should have been, if I’d had the time to more clearly arrange my thoughts before the reading. As it was, I was, as I’ve said, a bit distracted: I was trying to work out these thoughts and questions I’ve just written down for you, while trying to listen and watch, while trying to tune out all of the everyday distractions—dare I eat an M&M cookie? I’m thirsty, can I open this can without annoying everyone sitting around me? My leg’s falling asleep, can I shift without kicking the guy next to me in the shin? I think I missed something just now, take notes, idiot, take notes, where are my index cards, I wish I’d had a smoke before I came and sat down, now it’s going to be an hour, pizza for dinner? Why am I so bad at listening? Am I a bad person or just a bad poet?—you get the idea. Readings, for me, are all too often what plate armor was for Twain’s Connecticut Yankee: uncomfortable, itchy.
Nevertheless, there was at least one poem that cut through all of that. Fittingly enough, it’s called “Samurai Song.” Looking back on the reading, I think it was precisely because that poem was performed more than some of the others. Certainly it seems to be one of Pinsky’s own favorites. In an interview with Leonard Lopate, (on The Leonard Lopate Show, March 30, 2009), Pinsky remarks that, after editing several anthologies (prior to the publication of Essential Pleasures, the occasion for the interview) in which he hadn’t included any of his own poems, the omission had begun to feel like false modesty. So he included a poem, at long last: “Samurai Song.” It’s also the poem—along with “Shirt”—that crops up most consistently in recordings of past readings done by Pinsky. And, finally, it’s also the poem he reads or performs in a short film on Youtube. The film’s fairly dramatic. The camera follows the poet down a deserted back alley—we’re meant to think: candy wrappers, rat droppings, condoms, syringes, probably bodies—through an anonymous steel door, and into some sort of industrial looking elevator. You hear his footsteps, reverb probably post-processed in, signaling (for anybody who’s watched any movie ever) loneliness, danger, a certain kind of sub-Jim Jarmusch-infra-Nietzsche-urban-cowboy-well-to-do-hip. He could be a hitman, the film seems to say. He could be a bereaved father packing seventy guns under that nicely tailored jacket. Then the screech of hinges, and the clunkety-clank of elevator machinery. (Nobody ever uses WD-40 in the movies, except to improvise flamethrowers.) Once in said elevator, Pinsky/Ghost Dog looks into the camera for the first time, and recites “Samurai Song,” hint of a smile on his face, swaying a little bit with each clunk and clang of the extremely slow and probably dangerous elevator. Everything framing the poem is now intoning—through lighting, sound effects, gonzo camera—sonorous old chambara movie lines about the transience of all mortal things, telling you to pick that single perfect strawberry you find while suspended on a cliffside over a bottomless ravine with a rabid tiger snarling at you six feet above your head, telling you eat it, just fucking eat it now, it’s the last strawberry you’ll ever have and furthermore it’s the best strawberry in the history of strawberries, damn it.
Whew. So anyway, it seems safe to say that Pinsky cares about the poem, and that he is aware that it is widely read and known—that, in other words, whenever he reads that poem he is aware, perhaps even more so than he normally is, that there are people listening, people reacting. Can one be aware of something like that and not perform?
Well, I’m not sure. I’m no psychic, and I haven’t had a chance to ask him any of these questions. All I have is the circumstantial, and that colored, no doubt, by my memory—that he seemed to lean forward a bit more while he read, as if into a strong wind; that he seemed to be forming his vowels with extra deliberation and resonance; that certain consonants got clipped and thicker, somehow (the word “body,” as in “when I had no body,” for instance, came out something like “BOHD-dhee”); that you could hear the lines resonate, and that that physical resonance somehow made the echo of Fulke-Greville (“Absence my presence is, strangeness my grace,” from Cælica) all the more striking. All of these things made me think that he was performing, emphasizing some features of the poem to provide the audience with more access. It could also be that I was simply “witness[ing] [Pinsky’s] experience of the poem” (DCV 63). The question that I’ve been asking from the beginning of this essay—the question that I’m still asking—is: what’s the difference?
I’m sorry: I don’t have any answers. All I can say is conditional: if there’s a difference, it’s a distinction that is fundamental to Pinsky’s definition of poetry, and if so, and if he was performing, rather than “embodying” “Samurai Song,” then that seems like a bit of evidence that might argue for a revision or expansion of a concept of poetry that is based on private embodiment. But that’s all: it seems anti-climactic, I know, but that’s all I can know, all I can reasonably say.
How about you?
Sam– you…just… ROCK.
I really enjoyed this! I like to remember that before there was text, there was poetry. As for performance, if poetry is expression, but not all expression is performance, then maybe poetry is body at first (that same body that is suddenly and unexpectedly raped by sorrow or pain or infused with joy), but then later, after the body records it, it becomes performance, the way dance or music do. I studied oral interpretation of literature as part of my humanities degree, and I have a friend who asks me often why I do what I do. I try to explain performance isn’t about ego or recognition but about getting the work out there – maybe out of my body, into the world, into other bodies. Paracelsus said that the ear is not an extension of the skin, but that the skin is truly an extension of the ear. I truly believe we touch one another when we speak. It’s why some people “rub us the wrong way” while others have other, more positive, charismatic affects, even to the point of persuading another/others to pro-create with them.
Oh, and I’ve seen Pinsky read a few times. He does become noticeably more animated with some poems. He’s got a very distinct way of reading.