What do these three things have to do with one another?
1. Lat week I gave a reading in a black box theater on the campus of a great university in a small state. I liked the students a lot-- I even liked all their questions (Q&A periods are inherently flattering to the answerer). One student wanted to know (I paraphrase) whether I considered myself a performance poet, or felt any connection to slam conventions, since (she thought) I read with such drama and verve. I told her I was flattered-- and I was-- but I didn't think of my own work as connected to performance poetry at all. Why do I remember that particular question?
2. I received this weekend a new book of poetry by a Michigan writer who also writes essays and stories: the new book of poetry has to do with becoming a stepmom in a blended family-- I recommend it highly to anyone with a particular interest in that topic-- but the accompanying material revealed that the author is also at work on a book about living with prosopagnosia, the medical condition in which patients-- whose vision and cognition are otherwise fine-- cannot recognize people by their faces. Why does this strike me as an appropriate disorder for a poet to have?
3. It's Thanksgiving! My wife and my son and I (but not our cats) are at my parents' house, where, by nightfall, we will have met a few dozen of our relatives, including some people we see once a year at most, and perhaps some people I've never seen. What does that have to do with poetry? What does a black-box theater have to do with a prosopagnosia memoir-in-progress? And what do they all have to do with Martin Buber? Read on and find out...


The links between #2 and #3 will be pretty clear. Thanksgiving in a family where there's a large gathering involved prompts fear of the feeling that prosopagnosics must experience all the time: what if I see someone who expects me to recognize him or her, but I simply have no clue who they are, and have to use language, awkwardly and directly, to find out?
As for #1, though... if I'm surprised, even taken aback, to be asked whether I consider myself a performance poet, I can't rule out the possibility that the surprise comes in part from unacknowledged snobbery or racism on my own part, since performance poetry as an art form is marked (in the linguist's sense) as nonwhite, and since it carries less prestige in some (not all!) academic circles that the kind of poetry Elizabeth Bishop (for example) wrote. Maybe my surprise was just an example of white privilege.
I think, though, that my surprise at the (truly flattering) question had less to do with skin than with face and voice-- and with a way of thinking about lyric poetry as a kind of art, and as a kind of work that writers do. By one important account of lyric poetry in general, the most general, maybe even the most ethically important, work that lyric can do involves making persons present to one another across time and space: saying "I am me, and no one else; you are you, and no one else" to readers (imagined as listeners) who aren't in the same room, maybe not even in the same society or the same country, as the person who writes.
Quite a lot of touchstones or "perfect examples" (to quote Hüsker Dü) of lyric make such acknowledgement explicit: Donne telling his lover that they will be connected even though distant in space (separated by seas); Gwendolyn Brooks acknowledging (and asking us to acknowledge) the "cry of art" in a boy who throws a rock because he feels ignored; A. E. Housman deciding that a Roman soldier thousands of years ago shared his thoughts; Keats posthumously offering us (or perhaps offering Fanny Brawne) his living hand.
When we read such poems, if they work properly, we may feel that the qualities we associate with the recognition of faces, with face-to-face meetings between human persons, could arise instead from encounters of readers with pages, face bent not to another face but over words. (In Keats and in Brooks, we can feel those qualities working between poet and reader even as they fail to work between the poet and some third party-- the boy breaking glass, or the cruel fair, who might never want to read the poem.)
This account of face to face encounters as what lyric, generically, tries to bring about-- what lyric creates, what lyric evokes-- comes mostly from Allen Grossman, who got it by applying to literary reading (with appropriate alterations) ideas in the philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. (You can find similar accounts in the recent writings of Susan Stewart, and very persuasive claims about feminism and face-to-face recognition-- though not much about poetry-- if you read the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin.) It is, to me, the most convincing (though it is not always convincing) modern model of lyric-in-general, and one of the claims it entails (as Grossman says) is the absence of a face: the lyric person, Grossman writes, must be "departicularized in order to attain its efficacy for another"; the head of Orpheus, in order to sing for us, must be severed, and must face away.
To say so is to make lyric poetry in general the disembodying kind of writing, the kind of writing that insists by its nature that the presence of a person is not the presence of that person's body in real time.
But to say that is to make lyric poetry the opposite of live theatre in all its modes, from scripted stage drama to slam poetry, modes which insist on the live presence of a real body as part of our reaction to the work.
So... to say that I'm like a performance poet is a great compliment to the way I read my work. (I remember when a very distinguished poet and scholar-- one who had less than no interest in performance-poem genres--offered to give me and my friends lessons in how to read our verse out loud, since he'd seen us and obviously we didn't know how to do it.) The question and answer, and my later surprise, might simply show how far printed-page verse over the last 250 years has retreated into a culture of silent reading, since- if you go far enough back- all verse, including lyric (that's where "lyric" comes from as term) was meant to be declaimed, recited, set to music, or otherwise performed. I know that some very powerful writers, including at least one important Harriet member, see synergy rather than conflict between their poems read aloud and their poems on the page. I like giving readings. (I like attention, honestly.) I very much want to see how some performance-identified poets react to my reactions, if anyone bothers to read this far down.
And yet... I don't want to believe that my poems are part of a theatre genre: I don't want to believe that they need me there to read them, nor that they are part of a genre that requires performance, nor that they are connected to my physical presence, nor that they project me, or some part of me, in a way dependent on, rather than severed from, the physical, recognizable, presence of my (or anyone's) body and face. I want to think of the kind of poetry I write, that is-- as Grossman thinks of lyric poetry generally-- as a literature of prosopagnosia: one in which you need never see me, or know me personally, or know my face, in order to know the person the poems present.
I also want to recognize the people who show up today for Thanksgiving: I fear that I won't know them, but they'll recognize me-- before I can say a single word.

Originally Published: November 22nd, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. November 22, 2007
     Rich Villar

    Performance poetry is marked as non-white? Interesting...not the first time I've heard it, but I'm curious as to why you'd think that. And I'm sure there's more than a few white performance poets who would be curious as well.
    Like Patricia, I came from slam, so I do think about the poems as they happen out loud. But that's also an offshoot from how poetry was unfolded in my house growing up. My father, who is Cuban, never read a poem to me in his life...he recited them out loud, from memory. When I was older and able to seek these poems out in print, even if I put the text of a poem in his hand, he'd have to read it out loud. I think that root orality, along with a desire to wipe the floor with some of the weaker poets on stage, initially attracted me to slam. (Juvenile, I know.) So I come to poetry through the ear first and foremost.
    For me, the act of committing a poem to page seemed more like an archival tool than anything else. When I came across certain poets later, I found that the page really did have a life of its own: this struck me especially with geniuses like Mark Doty...a fan of Bishop who, incidentally, is highly compelling to hear in person. At the same time, attending one of the centenary celebrations for Pablo Neruda in 2004, I was struck by how Neruda was able to fill a space with sound in a manner bordering on religious ritual (we heard a recording, granted, but I honestly think the quality was in his voice more than in the PA system).
    It's like you say, at some point we seem to have lost the essential oral qualities of poems. I'm still a student, so maybe I'll find out before too long.

  2. November 22, 2007
     Steve

    Dear Rich:
    From what I've seen, the popular accounts of the rise of what now gets called performance poetry in the United States, and of the rise of the poetry slam (not the same thing) are connected to African-American writers in Chicago (such as Patricia Smith), to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York (whose name blends "New York" and "Puerto Rican"), and to strands in early hip-hop or proto-hip hop (e.g. the Last Poets). So, yes, I think it is marked as nonwhite. Of course there are many white folks who have a right to call themselves performance poets, and like almost every art form in the United States it's been built and altered by people of many colors and backgrounds.
    You can believe in the Grossman version of poetry as the presentation of an absent face without thinking that poetry must thereby lose its oral qualities, or you can think the loss entailed by the account: it depends what you take "oral qualities" to mean. (G. M. Hopkins, whose poems have lots of oral qualities, thought of poems as in some ways analogous to scores in classical music: texts meant for performance by the reader, not necessarily in public or out loud: at least one very eminent living critic has endorsed exactly that account.)

  3. November 23, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Hope your Thanksgiving went well, and there were no awkward non-recognitions! (My own involved a long day of running all over town to find imported red sweet-potatoes rather than the native grey Greek variety, which I couldn't quite bring myself to bring to a Thanksgiving dinner here...)
    I was pretty active in the spoken-word scene in Atlanta in the mid-1990s. I have always been a little surprised a the snobbery of academe towards it--I guess my feeling was, if you think the poetry is bad (and few academics came down to the open mics anyway, so I'm not sure how they could judge), why don't you come down and read some "good" poetry--show people how it's done. Admittedly, the spoken-word scene in Atlanta in the mid 90s was not a huge slam scene--it was pretty much an uncompetitive sport--and while there were some serious and excellent performers, it really was more "spoken word." I am also kind of surprised to learn that performance poetry is somehow marked as nonwhite... maybe it is, I hand't thought about it that way. Two things did surprise me when I was involved in it--I was surprised there were not more poems with formal elements--rhyme, meter, that would aid memorization--and I was surprised how male-dominated it was at the time. I was told by an organizer at one venue I was very active in (Cafe Diem), that my appearances had marked a shift in the event. Not, it turns out, because I was declaming sonnets, but because I was female, even though the audience, most of them writers I assume, was pretty fifty fifty. And it was actually through the spoken word scene that I met Harriet-poet Jeffrey McDaniel, when he was running an open mike at the Black Cat in DC...
    Well, it was good practice for performing generally, reading over capuccino machines and the occasional heckler, being willing to perform anywhere--Lollapalooza, cafes, bars. I found it helped me hone poems, too, to be more direct, eschew certain eleborate decorations, admit of more humor. I still find reading new poems aloud a vital part of my process--I can tell instantly where something goes slack, I can tell when a risk has payed off. (Not every poem is designed for reading aloud to every audience, of course, and I try to "read" my audience as well as my poems.) I guess I have great faith in audiences. But at the same time I am really writing for that silent reading on the page, too. I am not keen, for instance, on recording poems at internet sites, since I'd rather the "reader" hear the poem in their own still small voice. So I guess I want to have it both ways...
    I'm sure your questioner was complimenting you!

  4. November 23, 2007
     Rich Villar

    Steve:
    You're absolutely right to note the presence of the Nuyorican in New York, the Chicago poets and Smith, the Last Poets, etc. I don't think that's a narrative that gets told too often, because whether unconsciously or not, people tend to equate the rise of slam poetry with the rise of spoken word.
    To their detriment (and the result of my frequent bouts of head-pounding-the-wall frustration), the Nuyo Cafe has not done anywhere near what is needed to separate what Bob Holman did for them as a slam venue from the work their writers did previous to 1990. And because I live with a Chicago poet myself, I know that there was a scene for black writers before slam really took off...and even when slam hit, they didn't always flock to the Green Mill. Maybe I've got more to read, but we must always be conscientious of what is considered conventional wisdom when it comes to these kinds of histories. Speaking of which, I'm going to re-read some of what Patricia said about this stuff...I'm pretty sure there's something in the PF archives.
    I think there's a point where the poet must let the poem be what it is, in whatever form it chooses to take. Whenever a poet says "A poem is THIS..." someone comes along to defy it. Which is how it should be, I suppose. In the air, on the page, the poem is still the poem, no? It sounds like Hopkins understood that to some degree, or at the very least was trying to come to terms with it.
    All that said, I wonder how miffed Ernest Thayer was when "Casey At The Bat" became a vaudeville act...

  5. November 23, 2007
     Steve

    I'm sure I was being complimented too-- I hope the questioner, whose name I never got, wouldn't mind my using her query as a jumping-off point in this way.
    Alicia, in answer to your question, there's at least one poet who has done a lot of standup competitive performing, and who has won slam awards, and who has won an old-school book contest, and who uses lots of rhyme and meter, and who certainly has more in common with (say) Millay, McKay and Frost than with anything from a stage-based tradition: that would be Craig Arnold. I wonder if he's reading Harriet?

  6. November 24, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    I'm a fan of Craig's work--I have taught a number of poems from Shells over the years (the terrific double sonnet Artichoke, and his hilarious Sapphics for example)--and we had the privilege of hearing him read/perform his work here in Athens a year or two ago. Still, I think he is atypical of the scene...