Friday, April 27, 2012


On 25 April 2012, I received my copy of the March 2012 issue of PMLA.  Journals have been taking their sweet time to get to me of late; I suppose I ought to check up on my memberships to be sure that they are current, but I think I am paid up for the year.

Anyway, I was not able to jump right onto reading it as I usually am; I have mentioned a few times, I think, that I try to keep abreast of major developments in the fields in which I work as a scholar, so I generally start reading journals as soon as I get them.  This one waited a day or two for me to get started with it, and, since I tend to do my journal-reading on the train, I am not yet done reading through the current issue.  But I have read a few of the articles, and a few things have already struck me.

One is a short passage near the beginning of Christopher Grobe's "The Breath of the Poem: Confessional Print/Performance circa 1959" which reads
Authors are not supposed to have smells because, by and large, they are not supposed to have bodies.  And, with the exception of a private frission or two over the tactile pleasures of fine paper, neither are we readers supposed to have, or else make much use of, bodies.
Much of that strange ritual the poetry reading [sic] seems choreographed to enforce this prohibition.  Why else, when called on to perform their authority at such readings, do our literary titans meekly clutch the podium at their abdomen, sport clothing that aspires to invisibility, and defer to the safer seductions of the printed page by visibly scanning, word by word, poems they know by heart, by breath, and by gut?  The author, on such occasions, is merely the onion-skin flap protecting the poem--the mercifully thin obstruction to poetic meaning and not its conduit. (215)
I know and have known a number of poets, some of them better than others, and I have occasionally (too often for a number of people, I know) pushed forward some semblance of verse, myself.  From my experience with the poetic community--which I will admit is limited--I find myself asking Grobe's questions alongside him.  The "poet voice," the propensity for performing poets (and other artists I have seen, but I'll not delve into that too much) to dress all in black, and the all-too-often evident phenomenon of people burying their faces in the pages they wrote rather than looking at the audience to which they are actually presenting the work have all raised my hackles and prompted me to ask Why?

I know there are some answers.  Some of them are even good ones.  One (and one with which I am familiar, doing a fair bit of writing myself, although more of it in analytical prose than in "artistic" endeavors) is that a writer writing a thing does not entail that the writer remembers the thing.  Even now, I am at work on a paper in large part so I can get the idea out of my head; I can hardly expect to keep it in when I push it out.  Hell, my dissertation, on which I spent years of work, is not as clear in my mind scant weeks after I defended it as I recall it being in the hours surrounding the defense.  So that part, the need to look over the material, I can well understand.  But the rest...I am not sure about the rest.

Especially the "poet voice."  That drives me nuts.  The false suppression of inflection and intonation in favor of a pseudo-dramatic, staggered, assumed breathiness grates.  If a poem is supposed to be a relation of feeling, why should it not sound as though the reader feels?  If it is an attempt to arrive at some truth, then why should it not ring of the elation of uncovering truth, or of the sorrow that an unpleasant truth cam prompt?  And if it is an expression of the poet's inner being, and it really does sound like the "poet voice" puts it, why should I want to know the person?  For I get to deal with enough deadness and false pomposity riding the subway each day, and before that, among the central Texas population among whom I grew up; I do not need it when I look to something outside of my "normal" life.

As I think on it, it occurs to me that the "poet voice" may be part of the reason that the general public (insofar as it exists) has trouble with poetry--something which has been an issue of concern for me.  Something about the forces the poem into some place other than where people are willing to go to it, and it is forced; few people, if any, actually talk the way they read poems, and those people are usually shunned for being blasted annoying.

Do not use the "poet voice" and then complain that "people don't like poetry anymore."  Your use of the thing is part of the problem.

Work Cited
Grobe, Christopher. "The Breath of the Poem: Confessional Print/Performance circa 1959." PMLA 127.2 (March 2012). 215-30. Print.

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