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vaudeville

The radical poetry of 100 years ago was not radical in terms of style. It was conventional in terms of style and this doomed much of it (though not all of it) to being forgotten and rightfully so, but note that the folk songs and protest songs and blues songs of that period were not forgotten and still matter and register with intelligent and artistic peoples. Why? Because they were not written in the language of one’s betters, and therefore not some cheap and clumsy knock off of the prevailing aesthetic of the most middle brow literary magazines.

In point of fact, it was the urban decadence of cabaret, parlor music, vaudeville, and fast talking medicine show sharpies, but most of all, of the “othered” in terms of Blacks, Jews, and Irish that reinvigorated the pastiche and cut up sensibility of the high modernists, and this wave of influence has not yet abated.

In that sense, the accidental poetry of the people, that which is not striving to sound “good,” but is in love with its own sound productions is still the most pervasive influence on every form of poetry with the possible exception of surrealism, and one could make a very good argument that French surrealism, its particular zeitgeist, was made possible and viable by cabaret and circus performers, and then silent film performers (harlequin to Laurel and Hardy) who performed the surreal in their acts and on film.

Freud and Jung were after thoughts to give the surreal acceptable “forefathers.” A poem is first and foremost an organization and shaping of words that allows consciousness to escape its own worst grooves–both for good or ill (since some grooves are actually beneficial) or which makes those grooves refined to the point where they are strong and supple, and energy enhancing–the organized energy of life itself–what Blake meant when he privileged the imagination over nature and said that exuberance is beauty–the current of how one moves through one’s very being.

For all my ranting, and cynicism, and anger at my age, I have never not wanted to be alive–and to enter this current of being alive is my language. So for me: not perfection, but the force that moves through nature–not the mirroring of nature, but the homage to its storms and vital ugliness/beauty through words–the way mirrors would break if left in the wilderness–but the wind in their breakage, the weather of time and water in their distortions: I still want to write a poem that gives me the pleasures of walking on the shore of the sea in the fall when all the tourists have gone home, and the air is cool but not unbearable, and I am with my Emily and my daughter Clare (I have read poems by Vallejo that did that for me).

I want the word “my” to be as selfish and as unapologetic as an animal–my, my sun, my jacket rifled by the wind, my wife and daughter with me–my tribe, and on the 100th reading, the thousandth reading, salt in my spit and, if I am alone, fiercely alone with a whole congregation of stars.

I want to write a poem that takes on not the semblance of life, but its full and necessary ferocity, and on the last reading, is worn, eroded, impacted by the years, but far from being worn out–anciently sudden, and suddenly ancient: I want that broken music.

This is a political desire–if by political we mean to procure the necessary justice, and peace and compassion for such a life and aesthetic to exist. I want all of human life to be able to rest long enough to swallow its own spit and stare up at the stars, and hear the promise of some covenant–anything other than the drowning out of the soul by this twaddle we call the contemporary world. This is the extension of my own right to be fiercely and troublingly alive to every man, woman, and child.

I don’t want to save anyone: I want them to live. There is a big difference between wanting to save someone and wanting them to live. Those who save, kill all but what they will to be saved. Fuck that: I want everyone to live, and that is truly radical–to want even the mosquito on that beach, and the black fly, and the stranger’s dog who comes up and sticks its nasty wet snout in my equally nasty crotch and slobbers on me to be alive, and for me to be alive as I get royally pissed off–but in the full brio of being this animal who prays. I don’t want perfect conditions. I don’t want constructs. My poems will provide the leash on which the fierce love and sprawl of my life is lead. I want to be walked well by the tongue of speech–until I am dead.

One of the first readings I ever did was in 1982 at the Baron Art center in Woodbridge. This was a good seven years before I became a host there, and Edie Eustace, one of the best friends poets ever had, booked me as “Poetic whimsy at the piano.” I did my own small version of a vaudeville show–what I had been doing all my life when my family was still alive: some funny songs, some straight free verse poems, a couple of raunchy rhymed poems, and a couple of neo-classical bits on the piano, instrumentals that I’d composed–everything but ballet and a dog show. In between numbers I spoke some anecdotes, talked to the crowd. It was my natural way of performing. This approach considered the presence of the audience and myself as an entertainer as sacred–not the individual poems, not the piano pieces that ranged from classical to blues, to novelty songs–but the experience of being present in a room in which I got to do what I do. I was able to use all the talents I had: storytelling, witness, music, and I did it as a thirty minute act.

It went over well. I had a packed house. Edie was a smart lady. She knew how to use me. I also played guitar and harmonica, and as I recall, I did dance around a bit with my harmonica–a funny sort of caper. I sang a selection from a musical comedy version of Sartre’s “No Exit,” which I pretended to be writing. The song named the situation of the three characters in hell. It was called “I’m in love with the girl who’s in love with the girl who’s in love with me.” It went like this (first couple verses):

I’m in love with the girl who’s in love
with the girl who’s in love with me!
This triangle’s perverse and perhaps even worse
as the sides of it don’t agree!
When we go out on the town and about
we are all three in great despair
for I care for the one who cares for
the one for whom I don’t care.
Menage A Tois! Might be what hits the spot!
But I’m only hot for the one who is hot
for the one who is hot for me
and for whom I am not!

Doing Sartre as a musical comedy was fun. I capered about the stage. I raised my arms in a mock waltz. I did what I was born to do: make a fool of myself. This week in my 380, I had occasion to perform the song again, and almost thirty years after that Baron reading, my students were laughing hard, and applauding when I’d finished. It’s good shtick and a good comic travesty on the existentialists. I love to do things like this as much as I love to write free verse poems. Unfortunately, there is no time or place or venue to do this anymore. First, poets want to be taken seriously–one of the things I hate them for. This includes slammers with their endless issue oriented verse. Ok. Be taken seriously, but it is much more of an art to flow through the different registers of emotion than to be forever stuck on the sharp prongs of one’s self- piety. It is much more refreshing to not always be the hero/ ego of your own fucking “art.”

Over the years, I have had a few chances to do what I really love–very few. I sneak a song in here or there. I once got through to a high school audience by doing Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not Stop for Death” as a slow, grinding blues song. All you need to do is repeat the first line. Sure, there are interdisciplinary art events, but even the name gives me pause and makes me cringe. Couldn’t they call it “mutt art?” That’s what it is! A little of this and a little of that. People call it cross or multi- genre performance. I call it vaudeville. I love vaudeville. I was raised before the death of variety shows, and I have never forgotten how much more alive I feel when I am not trapped in one form of art or another, but get to see how they all blend or clash. Long before the postmodernists declared the death of high and low art, vaudeville had already done so. On the Vaudeville circuit, a celebrity might tell anecdotes, a classical violinist might play a wonderful impromptu, a comic act might do a skit, followed by an aria from Mozart. It was divine madness, and these acts were honed and perfected over many years. This was long before we made academic careers out of analyzing pop culture through the rigorous jargon of critical theory.

This is what I knew about myself: I could write songs, and compose decent melodies. I was not a concert pianist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can put a song or a musical bit over fairly well. I am not a trained comic, or stand up, but I can be human in front of an audience, and I learned from my family how to tell a decent story. I am not an MFA trained poet, but I have read thousands of poems, have taught myself all the forms, have memorized at least a couple hundred poems, have learned the history of poetry, know prosody, and I can hold my own in the different styles. I am not a specialist in any one field of art. God knows I cannot dance, but I can do fairly good travesties of dancing. I have an expressive, though limited singing voice (actually I have a two and a half octave range when I’m not smoking, but I am not a trained singer) It is called being human. We think of hams as conceited, but a man who goes into the world trying to make something come alive is not a ham. A ham is someone who does not notice anyone else’s talent. I have never over read. I have never taken up more than my time on stage. And I have never cared if someone put me first or last.

I am a “mutt,” a cut up, a clown. Clowns are trained to run the emotional registers from funny to sad, from sublime to raunchy. Clowns believe that these mixed registers provide the ontological truth of existing. Clowns are morally adverse to the pure-bred. They are the only thing standing between people and purges, between the human and the human tendency to seek perfection to the point of slaughter. Clowns are the only true challenge to authority–not the revolutionaries, not the anti-this or that who, most of the time, are saying “I want the power,” but to authority. They tweak the nose of power itself, they show it for what it is: pathetic, evil, inhuman, the worst stain on our hearts. Clowns are not comic, but something more frightening and deeper. Clowns are the sacrifice of the high Mass, which is a solemn travesty, which is mutt, which is broken, which is vaudeville show in which very proper people come to watch a God be improperly slaughtered and then eat him (or her if you want me to be politically correct). The best clowns were the first and will be last to expose the lie of high or low art. They come to kill you and then raise you from the dead. To me, the motley is sacred, and it was always grounded in a sacred ritual of being, but it is not truly encouraged or allowed on the poetry scene. There are too many purists in poetry–and not just the academics. I saw it on the slam scene, too. It’s even worse in slam because they are all pretending to be communal and lowly while they take themselves way too seriously. It made me want to punch the mother fuckers out–all that fake love.

I stopped doing my shtick for the most part because I almost always feature with another poet, and some of them felt upstaged. I learned to muzzle my instincts, and stick to the program, but it cost me my joy. I would not sing during a reading because I knew I’d get clobbered for it. I would not joke, or cut up, or do a light verse ditty because, chances are, if it went over with the audience, some smug asshole would give me a left-handed compliment like: “You should do stand up.”

My “Art,” if it exists at all, exists as a belief in presence. Presence differs from entertainment in so far as it does not rule out the possibility of a deeper ontology. Judy Garland was present. Frank Sinatra was present. Lady Gaga has presence. There is something in presence that goes beyond mere entertainment, but also beyond perfection. Blake said “exuberance is beauty.” That’s the best quote I know on what I am trying to get at. You work hard at your act, but that work should not get in the way of presence–ever.

I am 53 years old and live in a time of reality television and Huxley’s Brave New World coming true. Camp and kitsch, and schlock, and self-help have lost their punch because there is no straight or normative culture to vamp or deconstruct anymore. This corporate culture deconstructs itself and, thereby, retains its power. It flies up its own asshole, and comes out the other end the same. When us triumphs over them, then us is them, and it needs to be attacked. Camp, kitsch, and the aesthetics of insignificance are the prevailing cultural norms. They are the norms which mean sincerity and ontology are the counter-statements: a seriousness that challenges the postmodern cliché of everything being leveled. Here, I seem to be contradicting myself since postmodernism prides itself on deconstructing levels, and being mixed register, but it has become authoritarian in its debunkings, in its fundamentalist “uncertainties.” It lacks kindness, and the generosity of true scorn. True scorn feigns disengagement. It uses numbness as a weapon to attack lies. It does not believe its own myth of snide. It does not make non-presence its chief aim. I find that I am bored for the first time in my life–bored with poetry, bored with art, bored with music. There are too many “knowing” people. No one is stupid with awe or pleasure, and any artist worth a damn knows that “stupidity” is as much a virtue as intelligence–as in instinct, as in intuition, as in being willing to fall on one’s ass, as in being unconscious of one’s effects, as in being unaware of one’s self.

I wish I could do what I really do: sing a song, recite a poem, tell a story, recite another poem, break out into dance or silliness, get serious, kill as many people as Hamlet, offer myself up in the high mass of my being–truly enact a ritual of presence, but I am limited by the expected forms. Edie gave me life when she let me be poetic whimsy at the piano. But even then, a couple poet friends of mine who thought they were looking out for my best interests said: “Joe, you’re a talented if raw poet… why make a fool of yourself?” I was in my early twenties. I figured they knew better than me. I was wrong. I should have answered: “I don’t have to make a fool of myself; I’m already a fool!” They could not understand what Edie understood, perhaps because she was older and could remember the golden age of American entertainment when vaudeville was kept alive in night club acts, and Marx brothers movies, and on variety shows. She knew what my real art was: a little of this and a little of that, and always aimed at the folks in Peoria–whatever in the human being truly goes beyond categorical pigeon holing. When I made someone laugh with a song, and then came back at them with a serious elegy, I was enacting their full emotional register as well as my own. It was a ceremony–an act. I should not have been made to feel ashamed of it. In later years, Deborah LaVeglia and Adele Kenny have often let me do my act, and much thanks to them, but it becomes harder because the professional surge in workshops and MFA programs, the continued bias towards the specialized, and the reduction of poetry to the either/or of performance or page has made vaudeville and presence a dubious value. I often dreamed of doing a sort of one or two hour act in which I would invite others up to do a bit, and run the full registers. But there is little market for this–and no memory of how enjoyable it could be. I would love to do something with Sweet Sue Terry, but I don’t have the money or the backing. I’d love to have a really good Jazz solo, and then combine a poem with a dance, and then tell some stories in between the acts, and truly create a ritual of being, but I’m getting old and there are people in power who don’t want to be shown up, or who have very lofty ideas of taste (taste can be a real drag). Non-feeing is the prevailing norm, and emotions are seen as questionable. Meaning is questionable. Fellow feeling is questionable. I’m not a sociopath. German decadence and French ennui, and American hipsters always bored me–for the most part. Their fascination with cruelty seemed redundant. Life is cruel enough without having to stylize it (though I understand the artistic need to stylize). I’m not into intellectual or aesthetic styles of S &M. It makes me sleepy. I mean I liked German decadence if it came with good legs, and French ennui had nice cheek bones, and knew how to smoke a cigarette, and American hipsters perfected the cues of be-bop and culturally savvy stand ups who assured us we were the knowing ones, and the culture was stupid, but, after a while, I grow weary of Bogart and pine for Cagney–the song and dance man. I don’t feel interested enough in poetry anymore to write it. I was never interested in poetry proper anyway. I was interested in poetry improper. As for songs, I can lose myself in song for hours in my living room, play to my ghosts, do Beethoven and follow it with Carole King, and I don’t need to enter the indie world of artistic blah. I was born in the wrong era. I spend my free time these days Googling dolphins, or old fast food franchises, or baseball, or songs. I am doing time. It is hard to believe in something that doesn’t believe in you.

Yesterday, I did a high school festival for the Dodge. Dodge is great in that it doesn’t force you to do the usual workshops. I talked to the students. We laughed and joked, and some people told me I had moved them but I couldn’t even remember what I had said because I was in the moment. I got paid 350 bucks, and spent two hundred of that in gas and hotels, but it was worth it. I didn’t read one poem in the classes. When the time came to read, I did two poems, and sat down. I feel exhausted by possibilities that will never come to fruition. I never wanted to read from a book and sit down. Whatever I thought I could do was often hemmed in and limited by gate keepers. All I ever wanted was to be devoured in some sense–to offer myself up on some imagined altar of being “in the moment.” Perhaps when the grid collapses, I’ll get my chance. I just hope they let me play the piano first.

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.