If I am anything at all, I am a vaudevillian. Considering that vaudville has been stone dead the last 80 years, that’s a hard thing to be, but wouldn’t you want to attend a reading where, first, someone read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” beautifully, followed by a white poodle jumping through a fiery hula hoop, then a great tap dancer, and then a good torch singer doing “Strange Fruit,” topped off by a rousing version of Etheridge Knight’s “All Fucked Up”? Hell, I would, and this either means I have no aesthetic boundaries whatsoever, or that I prefer, during the course of performance, to do what Ashbery does in a poem: let the flow take me where it will, live in the process and variety of consciousness rather than in some fully set and determined structure. Now it would be even more fun if the poodle held the fiery hula hoop between its paws while the human jumped through, but why quibble?
I am making a point here. At least, I think I am. If the poodle act was done superbly, as most vaudeville acts were, if it was the end result of months and years on the road, honing the act, then I don’t see why it would be any less valuable than a good poem (especially if the human jumped through the hoop). Poems are made out of words, but poesis is made out of a chemical compound of ecstasy and precision. It need not be ecstatic, nor precise, but a synthesis of those qualities is important. By ecstacy I mean the entire spectrum between being good at and enjoying the writing and presenting of poems, and the sort of possessed by the gods kind of inspiration Plato feared. By precision, I mean something that must be done “just so.” If the poodle wavers in her resolve and does not hold the fiery hula hoop at the right angle, the human might go up in flames. This is the secret and mystery of presence: a good tenor goes dangerously to the top of his range. We are waiting for him to fail. He does not fail: wallah! ecstacy with precision!
Most poetry readings are boring these days because we do something absurd: the poet pretends not to be performing. They read in a lack luster voice, often intentionally so. The audience is there to be “present,”—but at what rite? Certainly not the rite of ecstacy merging with precision to become poesis. The rite is called identification: I am a well-credentialed and leading poet, reading to you. You are students in an M.F.A. program performing a snob’s version of cannibalism. By being in my presence (or non-presence) you are hoping to become what I am: a leading poet reading before a group of grad students. We do not clap. We do not do what the vulgar people do. We are all intelligent. We are all “serious.” Look at us! In our midst, a cough becomes significant. At the end, we may clap “warmly.” This is sad.
I hate it. I look for attractive faces and bodies in the audience. I moan and ooh when the audience moans and ooh’s because I don’t want to be left out. I notice the beautiful girl who is dangling one shoe from her well arched foot. I want her. She will never be mine. She will get naked and procreate with a boy who translates Wordsworth’s The Prelude into Bengali. I lament. Where is the fiery hula hoop of the blood?
Don’t think I am advocating that everyone become a spoken word poet. God forbid! That’s just as bad because it is often fake ecstacy, and total imprecision. Spare me your false epiphanies! Spare me your skeltonic rhymes if you don’t know who Skelton is. Spare me!
Let us go back to what I was saying by taking a concrete poet and putting her in an environment I would think showed her to best advantage: Louise Gluck. (Don’t know how to put the dots on her “u”. Sorry.)
I saw Louise Gluck perform at a high school festival about ten years ago. They trotted her out because she was a pulitzer prize winner. They trotted her out because she was a name. They didn’t care about her poetry which, at least in her earlier work, is fantastic. They didn’t care that she was a sort of reserved, introverted, Alfred Hithcock blond. Hitchcock would have known how to present her: Tweed skirt, nice legs (Louise has kiiller legs), a sort of tense primness that calls forth monsters by dint of its introverted splendor. I was on the bill. High school kids like me. I knew my audience. I read , “So Kiss Me Asshole,” a poem of mine. Strangely, Louise liked me, too. She said: “You’re a good performer, and your poems have some merit.” I have been in love with Louise Gluck since I read “Fear of Birth” and re-read it two hundred times in a day when I was 15, and saw her photo on the back of an old anthology. Call it the love of Caliban for that which is fully in opposition to him, yet equally monstrous: she was as introverted, and audience unfriendly as you could get, I am practicly a poodle act, but we talked for a full hour: about Schumann (I told her some of the shorter lyrics she wrote seemed perfect for Schumann, and she agreed). We talked about Oppen (we share this love as well, and she studied with him). She claimed there were too many voices in her poems, and she could never utter them. She hated to read aloud, but the money was good. I said: “Louise, I hate when you read aloud, too. They don’t use you right. They should have you read one short poem, and then someone could play a small Schumann bagatelle, and then you could say something about Oppen, and the importance of mentors, and recite a poem by him from memory. You should always wear tasteful skirts because, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you have killer legs.” She smiled and said, “Thank you.”
It is a mistake to think poems written for the page can not be effective in performance. They need the right setting, the precision that brings out the ecstacy. A good poetry reading has the same aspects as a good poem. Lately, I want to strangle audiences. They don’t clap (they are all too intelligent to clap, and they are Mark Doty clones .About fifteen years ago, Doty said don’t clap, and they listened to him. Wretches! Theives of joy! They make me sick). I believe in clapping after any poem longer than a page—just to relieve the stress. Of course, short poems are different. I believe poets ought to work hard at finding the right voice and cadence, and way of presenting what they do. And they ought to be honest: it is a performance, a rite, the second you get in front of a room full of people. The ceremony should be performed with the same artistry as the poems—the right ceremony depending on the voice or voices of the poet. Louise Gluck is like Chopin, intimate: she loses something when placed in a room with five hundred high school students. You don’t get her best effects. You lose all the little trills, and false cadences, and intricate passage work. You lose the deceptively simple lines. She is writing splendid cabaret poems. These ought to be presented like good Kurt Weill songs, soft blue light included. To do that to Gluck and those students is detrimental to poetry. It’s far more vulgar and wrong than a poodle act. I heard kids saying: “She’s so boring.” I was angry. A woman with those tremendous poems and great gams should not be misunderstood. I said: “You liked my poems?” They said: “You’re great.” I said: “Louise Gluck is better than me, way better. They screwed you over. You need to hear her the way you would hear soft rain on a roof at night when you’re lonely, and fearful, and your childhood is dead. It can’t all be ‘So Kiss Me Asshole.’ That’s boring, too. Grow up!”
I fell a little in love with Louise that day because she was kind to me, and she didn’t have to be. She opened in the way a Louise Gluck should open: carefully, with a wonderful reticence and accuracy, with an inward passion. I got the performance out of her I was seeking. When she recited Oppen’s Bergen street by heart, she did so with feeling, and perfection. I was lucky.
So what am I getting at? First, poems that are subtle, or small, or call for pianissimo, should not be thrown into a Dylan Thomas frame work. Seeing a good cabret singer singing in a stadium is just wrong. Second, no poet should read before an audience more than fifteen minutes. All good acts are teasers. They should leave you wanting more. Now to the practical, pedagogical purpose of this:
In a class of ten poetry students, only five should be given the poem on paper at any time. Five should be listening, and listening hard. They should jot down a line that seems off, or one that they like. They should consider why exactly they like a line, or why it seems off. They should be honest about the poem’s effect on them. The other five should be giving the poem a close reading, and not just to find its “flaws,” but to first discover its intentions. “ur” poems, your idea of what a poem “should be” ought to be temporarily suspended, and you should enter the poem as it is—it’s intentions, it’s own private triumphs and failures. A good class trains listeners as well as readers. Poems should be memorized so that the language of poems becomes muscle memory. After a few poems, someone ought to tell a joke, or mention something that happened to them during the week. Digression, if it is good, is more to the point than being overly focused. Before a poet appears at the school, their work ought to be handed out. No poet should read for more than fifteen minutes unless it is an audience well versed in poetry. Over reading hurts poetry. It rams poetry down the throats of those who are not yet ready to recieve it. It’s bad fr the business.
There should be snacks, and, if possible, some music. A good piano player or guitarist (no tuning up please) ought to do something—no words, just music. Maybe some Ellington, a little Maple Leaf Rag. And then the poodle, holding the fiery hula hoop between its paws, and the six Hngarian acrobats leaping through the fire, and the girl dangling her she beside a by who is translating Wordsworth’s Prelude… but I digress.