what is it here now I can persuade you of? scraps towards a rhetoric of poetry performance

published in Frackija: Performing Arts Magazine no. 37/38 ‘Rhetoric’, Autumn 2005 / Winter 2006, pp 48-57, ISSN 1331 – 0100


what is it here now I can persuade you of? scraps towards a rhetoric of poetry performance

what can I persuade you of? that I am here now speaking to you? or reading to you, delivering myself of words to you, my words? others’ words? do you know if they are my words? do you need to know if they are my words? these words I deliver, what do they persuade you of? that you have heard them, that they are here now in this space between us? are you persuaded that these words have been chosen, ordered, considered? how can you know this, can I persuade you of this? persuade you to keep listening? what is it you are persuaded to listen to? that something is worthy of your attention? what can you believe outside of this context of the words and hearing them and recognizing them?

I am here speaking to you, here before you. I am here now before you speaking to you. You are there across from me, across that division that marks our distinct roles in this exchange. I am speaking to you from here, to you over there. These words I speak to you are my words, my words to you.

The audience is very quiet as [the poet] moves to the microphone. He says something. The voice is hoarse, hardly audible, barely understandable, but heard – attention is focused, as in the quiet moments just before a string quartet’s recital. (Stern, 67)

My silence is listened to along with my speech, you attend to my movement and my stillness. The words and the not words, and the body, my body.

I didn’t mean to be so much the object of display, but it was probably naïve of me to miss it. (Benson, 77)

Here before you I am on show, I am the show, displayed for observation.

you can recognize

it there it is it’s visually a correct

cognition. it’s usually displaced or you

can see it displayed. splayed. one

touches one. if so you can do it

with the significance. (Andrews, 26)

You grant me significance, seeing me before you. Hearing these words you recognise the situation, the situation that touches both of us, by which we touch each other.

If rhetoric is oral, speakers thus stake their senses of personal, social, and physical well-being upon their ability to instigate, sustain, and direct relationships with listeners in such ways as shall seem to serve the ends of both. (Arnold, 166)

We are at opposite ends of this casting of roles, this assumption of characters, of my throwing my voice to you, at you. We relate along this verbal axis.

Suddenly he stops. His head droops. […] he is silent for what seems like minutes. I wonder — everyone wonders – if he can go on. (Stern, 69)

if a reader / performer is not seeking in ‘her’ words, or in the delivery of ‘her’ words, to persuade the listeners of the validity of some point of view (where would the point of view be located / sited), nor of the authenticity of her utterance (that would necessarily depend on a notion of an authentic self that speaks), nor of the coherence of an argument, or of the whole / closed / complete text (measured from where, using what guidelines), then what is she performing? what does the audience listen to, what holds their attention (if it does, or if it does so fleetingly or fluctuatingly), what do they hear?

I am here reading to you. Reading in front of you from a script. Reading to you from my script, from my pages, from my book. This script I read from is not seen by you, it is hidden, it is part of the mystery of the exchange. You cannot see the script, this reading is from that hidden script. You listen as I vocalise the text, the text hidden on these my pages, as I make it available to you.

There’s always a private part, which becomes a dramatic part, in these public readings. It’s a reference to the reader only witnessing the page s/he reads from, even though everyone present ostensibly gets to hear the whole text, more whole for its embodiment through the voice. What’s the mystery of the text? A facticity, the act of it there, meaning nothing, triggering meaning between lines, figure-ground relations, the potential creases. (Benson, 79)

Without a guide in the form of a set of instructions, in the form of a score, how am I, the reader / performer to plausibly read my text, what am I persuading my listeners of / to?

Without a score (the score a musician might use, the notation a dancer might work from) I am not persuading them of my successful delivery of the text, of my ability to follow that score. This measure of competence or this validation of the performance is not present and may therefore be irrelevant.

this turns a reader meaning

a dual is not a social

contract. Make of your hands

a place not a tool. And understand

by here

an employee. The route of writing

not the root of language. (McCaffery, 64)

The text presented in the reading is the reader’s (in as much) as she delivers it, but she need not claim to own it, or to have special access to its meanings or any intentions of / for the text. (This is not to say that the reader doesn’t know the procedure employed to generate the text, or the sources of the text, or even the impulses or desires that led to the writing of the text). The audience comes into possession of the text (with the reader) in the reading, and their prior knowledge of language, or words, of cultural material, their desires for and expectations of the work, their intentions will impact on their hearing of it in that present.

I walked into a large room. I said, no, it’s not my birthday and you showed me how to paint a sunset in the tent. I came home and you were on fire. (Jarnot, 103)

The reader / performer presents the text using gesture and pitch and intonation, and these momentarily fix the text, they are that reading. Another vocalization of the text might shift the tones, might changes the emphases, might be gestured differently, giving a sense that the author-reader is not intent on revealing a particular meaning or set of associative charges immanent in the text. The sounds, the tones may well be different the next time she reads it, to a different audience who will know only the version they hear; on another reading some lines may work better and get a laugh, others may set off an unexpected echo of the days news, or the presence of a named person in the audience can shift the resonance of a particular phrase.

Neither the spoken voice, nor the “I” that speaks graphemically on a sheet of paper, nor the body of the reader in front of an audience can ever truly be the self of the poem. What you or I or any other reader or listener might bring to the text, […], participates in that construction. If there is an imbalance in the power relation between author and audient, in that only one produces the signifying chain of the text, this dynamic is itself open to the admission to awareness and negotiation between these two roles. If, socially and historically, any poem is open to that critical appropriation I’ve called ventriloquism, it is because the power of presence(POP) triggers latent meaning. But it is ventriloquism that codes it. (Silliman, 372)

There is/are gap(s) between the self in the room before the audience speaking reading and the self/selves written onto the sheet script from which she reads. There are shifts in power between the protagonists at the reading, the variable contributions they make to the situation in the present. Ventriloquism is experienced as a sense of the speaking body of the reader as a channel for the words, a channel through which they pass and by which they are given audible form. For Silliman, this ventriloquism leads to a narrowing of possibilities for the poem in the reading, it fixes or interprets the text around the presence of the speaker reader (373). Is this because we expect the rhetorical speaker to persuade us, to become a protagonist in a struggle to present meaning, an argument, in a way that a printed text in a private reading situation does not always propose? Without a sense of an authentic self (behind the words) (responsible for the words) then the persuasion of the audience of the possibility of the revelation of such a self is not part of the performance. It may come to the reader as part of her task to persuade the listeners that to seek such an authenticating voice in her performance is not what they are being asked or expected to do.

The poems are as poignant, as remarkable in the hearing as they were in the reading, and even without one word of [her language], one can sense their meaning as she recites them. (Stern, 70)

if the text is not directed towards delivering a particular message, or towards explicating a specific issue or problem, or towards exposing some truth, then the conventions of rhetorical persuasion must function strangely within it; where does the objective of their deployment lie? where is the subject whose utterances are plausible? where is the truth or state of things of which the listeners are being persuaded?

I am here writing to you, writing to you of speaking, writing to you of reading. I am here now before you, writing to you in my words, revealing the text to you on my pages. I make these words available to you. These words you see, you read, you hear.

What kind of theatre is this, where there is only one performer, usually not trained in acting or even public speaking techniques, where she performs a text often already well-known, not particularly written to be performed or even read out loud, not particularly written to be “theatre?” (Stern, 75)

The performance modes in this form of theatre are distinct from conventions of acting or playing a role, there is a mix of appearing natural – as a witness must in a witness box, while also being persuasive, but not persuasive artfully, but by a hiding of art in a performance of naturalness.

When a persuasion has to become a scene of persuasion one is no longer in the same way persuaded of its persuasiveness. (Paul de Man, quoted in Weitin, 539-40)

I must perform a natural delivery of my words, must appear to present them to you as they are, not in a special pleading, not in a specific performed mode, this must convince or persuade or gain the your adherence, you the listeners, for the duration of the reading, of the rhetorical event.

The audience appreciates, surely, but it also “believes.” The very fact that it has come to hear this poet read – rather than to read this poet in private – is an act of belief in the power, quality, and validity of the poet’s work. (Stern, 79-80)

There is a belief in the event, in the group, in the validating power of the institution, in the wish to be part of a group that believes. This is a publication of the group’s reading/listening, and at the same moment a publication of the poets writing/speaking. What is it that the audience believes in in the situation of the reading, what is it they have faith in? They may already know the reader/performer, and that knowledge (personal. professional, academic) may form the foundation of a faith in what she, the reader/performer, writes and reads. For an audience with this prior knowledge, what rhetorical work does the reader/performer need to engage in, what is she to persuade them of? Will any utterance of hers be already granted significance, or must she still frame and shape that utterance in order for a particular mode of listening to take place? If so, then what sort of listening does experimental or non-lyric poetry demand (or require)? and in parallel, what strategies of reading/performance are required for it to be heard (properly)? Must both the reading and hearing be appropriate? A discourse of propriety, of property, is introduced into the reading site – the reader (author) performer proffers her property, her production, produces her text (again) in performance, and with the appropriate framing, the appropriate gestures, offers this to the listening attendant audience, who behave appropriately in receiving this gift, this given, this occasional gesture.

The “warrant” however, for the poetry reading does not come from the “truth” of the poems, but rather from their recognition as poetry by the authorizing, organizing group – a society, university department etc. – which has arranged the particular reading […]. (Stern, 74)

The frame for the situation of reading is set up outside of the protagonists — the authority of the figure standing before me is given authority by the institution, and by the fact that she speaks her words.

In the confrontations of oral rhetoric one must stand with his symbolic acts. His personal presence (even if only by voice) is itself symbolic, rhetorical action. His verbal and physical behaviours merge to form a flow of symbolic activity representing to the listener the rhetorical speaker’s entire physical and psychological organization […]. All this is carried to the listeners for interpretation and judgement. More than signification, verbal and gestural, occurs. A self that is not an abstraction but has a body supportively authorizes each signification. (Arnold, 164)

In performing the reading, the performer has at her disposal other tools, other materials than she has in writing, than she has on the page (some of the page specific visual tools not being available), and she can choose to use these to articulate the textual surface, to deploy the textual material, in time, in vocalisation, in volume, in space and movement, in ways that can be mapped onto the spatial and typographic possibilities of the page.

The fact of orality means some degree of interdependence prevails or is going to prevail between speaker and others, for mutually influential interaction or the expectation of it is inescapable in speaking and being spoken to.

The fact of orality also generates whatever meanings any participant in orality has learned to attach to associations with other humans and to the processes of sustaining them by means of speech and listening. (Arnold, 161)

Oral rhetoric is founded on exchange, on an exchange of not only meaning but a back and forth exchange of expectation, of association, of action, of faith.

An abstract poem by Bruce Andrews, in which profanities and obscenities are spoken in different tones, genders, and political standpoints, with no immediate framing context, […] requires readers to trust that this work matters, should be listened to, that the phrases mean what they appear to mean and are not code for something else entirely, and that the effect is one intended by the author. (Middleton, 2002, 38)

In reading / performing a text where there is no narrative thread, where the material is not organised around a story, where it is not held together by a chain of links at the level of content, the work of the performer may lie in persuading the listeners that a text is being performed, that this is not an incoherent jumble of textual matter (or if that is what it is, then it is this that is of relevance in this situation). What the performer must persuade the listeners of, is that there is something to hear, that listening is a valid response, and that there is something to hear here now.

It is all too easy to treat a poem as a fraud or a hoax, […]. For a poem to be met with sufficient commitment to be able to work, it needs some reinforcement that this particular poem can be trusted, it is not a fake. […] a solid poet standing in front of you reading the work aloud will add significantly to the viability of trusting the work, and even more persuasive will be the opportunity to witness the poem at least partly coming into being in front of your very eyes during a performance. (Middleton, 2002, 39)

How, without a narrative, an argument, or a plea, can the reader / performer persuade her audience to listen to the textual material she is presenting, to give it attention, and to consider that material as significant, plausible or persuasive in some manner?

One mode of reconsidering the textual material presented is as a variously articulated textual surface to be addressed in formal or musical terms, then the sense of the shifts in pitch, modulation, force or time will relate not to the connotative aspects of the words or sentences, but to the denotative levels. The text becomes a field of play for variations in emphasis, the sounds thus are not working as an “echo to the sense”, but may be one of the (chief) guides to what may be the sense. In the most ‘formalist’ attending to or attention to the material, the material being read is heard as a sequence of sounds, of phonemes, of syllables, words, words that are gathered into phrases, but their primary impact or force is as sounds, not as sense carrying packages. Sense that may work onomatopoeically, or gestures, rhythms, or vocalisations that generate analogically, can be sensed by the audience as the more important intention of the performance / reading, and as such the individual words and their semiotic content will be subordinate to other sensing, sensual, sensory modes.

And the problematization of “reading” through the insecurities inherent in the “performance” of it has been a means of derailment from the insistence of about-ness – including the premise that the performance was about the job of reproducing the literal language of/through the authentic voice behind the printable text. (Benson, 85)

A reader may present the words of her text as significant and signifying, allowing the weight of connotation to be felt by the listeners. By presenting in terms of force, time, or modulation the various words, clauses, or sentences, she can allow for a play of signification to occur, in particular by shifting modulation away from that which might be expected or by breaking a clause. By altering the force, by radically shifting her pace, the reader gives the listener room to operate in and around the words. She works against a dulling of the sense(s) by keeping the listener on her toes, by encouraging the listener to reassess the relationships of word to word and phrase to phrase and so to consider how meaning is operating in the text, how the possibility of variation of meaning is being pointed to, and how this variation is in synchrony with the mode of delivery / performance and / or how it is in opposition to it.

Objects of desire, I came here for a reason. Bringing pain and growing wheat. From scrap material. In these conditions. It is a control mechanism. Who said I was wonderful. Beloved therefore to me. To spread and couple. To pick lost trees. To have a clean disaster. (Jarnot, 106)

works cited:

Andrews, Bruce, ‘Vowels’ in Getting Ready to Have Been Frightened, New York: Roof Books, 1988, 5 – 27

Arnold, Carroll C., ‘Oral Rhetoric, Rhetoric, and Literature’ in Rhetoric in Transition: Studies in the Nature and Uses of Rhetoric, Eugene E. White, ed., London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1980, 157 – 173

Benson, Steve, ‘Nothing To Say’ in Additional Apparitions: Poetry, Performance and Site Specificity, David Kennedy and Kieth Tuma, eds., Sheffield: The Cherry On The Top Press, 2002, 75 – 91

Jarnot, Lisa, ‘Marginalia’ in Some Other Kind of Mission, Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 1996, 103 – 106

McCaffery, Steve, ‘Dear Page’ in The Cheat of Words, Toronto: ECW Press, 1996, 64

Middleton, Peter, ‘Performing An Experiment, Performing A Poem: Allen Fisher and Bruce Andrews’ in Additional Apparitions: Poetry, Performance and Site Specificity, David Kennedy and Kieth Tuma, eds., Sheffield: The Cherry On The Top Press, 2002, 29 – 55

Silliman, Ron, ‘Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry Reading’ in Close Listening; Poetry and the Performed Word, Charles Bernstein, ed., Oxford: OUP, 1998, 360 – 378

Stern, Frederick C., ‘The Formal Poetry Reading’, TDR [The Drama Review], 35.3 (1991), 61 – 84

Weitin, Thomas, ‘Testimony and the Rhetoric of Persuasion’, MLN, (German Issue), 119.3 (2004), 525 – 540

other sources:

Davidson, Michael, ‘ “Skewed by Design”: From Act to Speech Act in Language Writing’ in Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics, Christopher Beach, ed., London: University of Alabama, 1998, 70 – 76

Goffman, Erving, ‘The Lecture’ in Forms of Talk, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981, 160 – 196

Hall, Judith, ‘A Poetry Reading’, The Antioch Review, 59.3 (2001), 569 – 570

Middleton, Peter, ‘The Contemporary Poetry Reading’ in Close Listening; Poetry and the Performed Word, Charles Bernstein, ed., Oxford: OUP, 1998, 262 – 299

Middleton, Peter, ‘How to Read a Poetry Reading’, A paper given at the University of Pennsylvania, October 2003, 2nd June 2005, http://www.soton.ac.uk/~bepc/forum/middleton_readingessay.htm

Murphy, Michael, ‘On Not reading Chaucer – Aloud’, Mediaevalia, Vol. 9, (1986) (for 1983), 205 – 223

Perloff, Marjorie, ‘The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall’, Textual Practice, 18.1 (2004), 23 – 45

Sheppard, Robert, ‘The Performing and the Performed: Performance Writing and Performative Reading’,How2, 1.6, 2001, 2nd June 2005, http://www.scc.rutgers.edu/however/v1_6_2001/current/in-conference/sheppard.html

Mark Leahy