Book review. Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word

close listening

Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word.
Edited by Charles Bernstein
Oxford U Press, 1998. 390 pp.

What do poetry slams have in common with traditional poetry readings?
More than one may think.

Close Listening, edited by Charles Bernstein, offers 17 perspectives on how contemporary poetry has been practiced as a performance art. Nearly ten years after its initial publication, this book remains fresh and stimulating.

Much literary criticism has neglected the auditory and performance aspects of the poem, Bernstein writes. But a poem’s sound and its meaning are aspects of each other, neither prior, neither independent.

This collection of essays argues against the assumption that a poem’s text is primary, while a poet’s performance of the poem is secondary, and fundamentally inconsequential to the “poem itself.” Bernstein observes that, in a poetry performance, explicit value is placed almost exclusively on the acoustic production of a single unaccompanied speaking voice.

Steve McCaffery writes about the ‘sound poem’ as an uncompromising effort at abstraction. Its primary goal is “the liberation and promotion of the phonetic and subphonetic features of language.”

Maria Damon notes that contemporary ‘open mic’ readings trace their origins back at least as far as the 1950s. At a San Francisco club called The Place, anyone could take the floor one night a week, but had to “withstand the heckling and other spontaneous, unpolished feedback from the audience.”

Johanna Drucker discusses the concept of orchestrating verbal language through visual means. She reproduces pages of work by the likes of Kurt Schwitters, Henri Chopin, John Cage, and Jackson Mac Low. Their graphical poems sometimes worked as a record of a performed piece, sometimes as its point of departure.

Contributors include Bruce Andrews, Marjorie Perloff, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, and others; some performers in their own right.

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