Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Page, the Spoken Word, and "Presence"

"Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form"

Joe Weil, writing for The The poetry blog, recently grabbed my attention with that statement, as well as the opening paragraph in which it occurred:
I always think that a poem “off the page” becomes an “act” of language rather than a poem, a thing made out of words. As such, its visual appeal (or lack thereof) is lost, but its actions are magnified—how it moves within the act of being uttered. It is no longer a poem, but an act of language. By this way of thinking, even a modernist or post modernist poem—fully constructed for its visual as well [as] verbal appeal, even a poem as a “made thing” becomes an “act of language” when read aloud. Such poems often suffer when translated from the realm of the page to that of the heard text. They were not meant to be heard. They are of the cognitive brain, and their affective, animal body is absent except as a structure of intelligence. This does not mean they become bad poems, but it does mean they are at least, flawed acts of langauge. They have a paucity of repetition, rhetoric, and tone. They have little or no mimetic force. The page poem is not poetry. Rather it is a construct in which poesis may or may not occur. By the same token, neither is the uttered poem poetry. Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form; poetry resides in something both caused by and beyond its words and this is true even when the poem is fully on the page as words. I call this something presence.
So, what is he saying? "Poetry" is not contained in either the written or the spoken word? And where then does it "reside"? According to Weil, it resides within an occurrence, which is to say that poetry - when it is successful - does something. More precisely, an effective poem creates an experience that can be conceptual, emotional, affective, paradoxical - or god knows what, or in what combination - but it does something that can't always be neatly summarized or reduced to a product of its technical details.

I agree that a poem on the page is received quite a bit differently than it is as spoken word (and this is where Weil's post eventually heads) but I'm not sure if I can agree that "a poem 'off the page' becomes an 'act' of language rather than a poem." Granted, to speak is a language act, but, in a way, so is the process of composing or reading a poem. The only difference is that the experience of a poem received from the page, i.e. read not heard, is an act that occurs in the radical absence of its author. To my mind, this gets right to the heart of that something that a good poem does: the language act specific to poetry springs from a particular contextualization (of words, sounds, and meanings) that does not require an author's presence to remain effective or dynamic.

And when I say "dynamic" I mean that a poem acts of its own accord, even if this act can only occur in the presence of a consciousness that can understand its words and appreciate the structure in which these words have been contextualized, i.e. a poem always requires someone's presence - a consciousness in which it might act - but it does not require the presence of its author in order to act.

Then again, any good piece of writing is effective in the absence of its author. So, what is this something in which Weil says "poetry" resides? Well, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, he focuses on the specific nature of hearing a poem rather than reading it silently to oneself; and he notes the affective, animalistic attributes of spoken word poetry as opposed to the presumably more conceptual attributes of works written for the page. So, when he identifies this something as presence, I find it interesting that he focuses on the spoken word - as spoken by a poem's AUTHOR - as a way of exploring his notion of presence.

Much of Weil's post is spent examining one of his own poems in an effort to understand why an audience member who is already familiar with this poem "on the page" would hear it in an entirely new and unfamiliar light at a reading. After an analysis of the sound and semantic details of the poem's opening lines, he concludes that "there is nothing in this poem so far that makes it spoken word friendly."

I couldn't entirely agree. Here are the lines he cites:
The world takes us at its leisure
by increments of infamy
or “virtue.”
Contrary to his own analysis, it appears to me that the strength of these lines build from an integrated pattern of stresses, long and short vowel sounds, regular beats, assonance, near and internal rhymes, and a few strong words placed at emphasized positions within the poem's rhythm. In other words, I find these lines to be anything but unfriendly to a spoken word performance. It's not slam poetry, but it doesn't need to be; these lines are both wonderful to speak (and, presumably, to hear) even though visual elements are necessarily absent in a reading.

Still, this is Weil's take on his own poem. Assuming that there really is nothing here that would stand out at an author's reading - and Weil states quite clearly that he only reads a poem aloud, he does not 'perform' it - he concludes these thoughts by saying (among other things) "If I had to think what makes audiences like this poem, it is probably the presence of a consciousness moving from thing to thing ..."

Yeah, okay. He goes on to say:
So why would my voice, a voice that is reading, not performing, win over an audience. I don’t think the answer lies on either the page or in the performance. I think it lies in presence. Presence is of a body—a form. I become my poem or my poem becomes me, and this thing of the body transcends either entertainment in performance or the sight of the poem on the page. This is the magic of the conversational lyric.
That statement starts out interesting, but, in the end, it sounds like gibberish to me. I think he's missing a more relevant question, i.e. how does "presence" find itself being generated from a well-written poem (whether silently read or heard aloud) even (or especially) in the radical absence of its author? In other words, what is this mysterious something that makes a poem "poetry"? Reading a poem and hearing it read are indeed two entirely different ways of apprehending a text, but many poems manage to draw from different strengths and shine in both situations. They do this for any number of different reasons, but the point is that a poem (not its author) acts within the consciousness of those who apprehend it.

Further, when Weil states that a poem's "visual appeal ... is lost" in the act of reading aloud to an audience, but that in this situation its "actions are magnified," he is referring to the supposed "affective, animal body" of the spoken word or speech act - the sensation of language rather than its intellectual absorption. What I want to know is why he assumes visual elements don't also act on an audience in an affective, animalistic manner during the act of reading? If a person is really concerned about where "poetry resides" (which I'm not even sure is a particularly relevant question, e.g. its like asking where does color reside?) Weil's particular take seems to miss the mark entirely. For me, the question is: why is poetry "poetry" and how does it manage to act even in the absence of a consciousness of its own?

That's a structural question, but it "resides" within a poststructural context - poetry acts within a collective environment that is conditioned to appreciate specific attributes of language within an elaborately structured context that is simultaneously conceptual and affective. It's also a question of semiotics, linguistics, literary theory, aesthetics, and any other relevant field of study you might care to come up with. It's a question that asks how a structured piece of language can exhibit dynamic tendencies in the presence of an activating consciousness that is not its author. I could go on and on.

Still, "Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghmaton [sic] and has several collections of poetry out there," while I'm a less-than-marginal poet who happens to write a blog. But I have to wonder: isn't "poetry" something more than a charismatic script that makes a poet shine at a reading?

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