Thursday, December 18, 2008
Poetry In Performance
The poem in performance is not the poem on the page.
I believe that and proclaim it whenever I can; now it's your turn to listen/read.
It's that blog on Beowulf that initiated this one. In the beginning, all poetry was "spoken word" and depended on proclamation/recitation before an audience; there were no written texts; even when writing became available, there were few readers. So, poetry was delivered vocally, by the author or another, as entertainment, as a record of semi-historical events and people, whatever was needed. The custom continued in the Middle Ages when troubadors wandered from place to place, court to court, with songs, ballads and tales. Recital of one's own work or that of others remained a viable method of transmission. Even throughout the nineteenth century this continued.
Printing in itself had not changed that. What did change was the availability of printed material to the masses rather than only the educated inteligentsia, and the increased literacy of the common people. One of the main effects of the twentieth century on poetry was a split between poetry on the page, to be perused and studied carefully, and the poetry presented live before an audience. True, the two overlap often. But the division remains between accademic and populist poetry.
Now to the bit that irritates me so much: I have a difficult time understanding those people who prefer to have a copy of the poem being performed before their eyes, to "follow." The two poems, the one being developed between the speaker and the listener and the other an artifact arranged to sit motionless on a sheet of paper are not the same experience. Very few people can focus on both experiences equally. Both suffer and neither is fully received and understood.
And that is what poetry is about, the sharing of emotions, insights, experience. By imposing unnatural limitations, the poetry is lost. We are left with sounds in the air, words on a page.
I like to read poetry, to taste and feel it in my mind. But for me there is nothing as directly satisfying as to concentrate on the intricate relationships of words and sounds as they ripple between voice and ear.
Walt Whitman sang of himself; Allen Ginsberg howled; Milton Acorn shouted love; Al Purdy was the voice of the land.
They needed to be heard. Now they are no longer with us, they should be read.