Monday, November 30, 2009

from "The Death of Art" (in chapter 2)

...There are a number of other complex and interesting issues that arise when the long-running border dispute flares up between performance poets and (for lack of a better term) page poets. To look at a few points more closely, I want to examine a particular skirmish in the war that took place online in 2008, on the blog of the Toronto poet Paul Vermeesch. It began with a post entitled “Rant: Why I hate ‘Spoken Word’ poetry,” which I will do my best to briefly summarize: spoken word performers are often, if not always, poor writers who hide the ineptness of their compositions (which Vermeesch refuses to label poetry) with exaggerated, stylized vocal performances and hand gestures; the only appreciative audience members for these performances are the performers’ friends. Spoken word, he says, “does a disservice to actual poetry by calling itself poetry.” Furthermore, he advises that “if you want to read your poem to an audience, read your poem the way it is written.” He asserts, in short, that poetry is a written art form first and foremost, and that spoken word is not poetry: “The word ‘poetry’ means something, and that ain’t it.”

At first this “Rant,” and the subsequent pages-long debate in the commentary, appears to be a conflict without any real consequence: it is possible for “poetry” to mean and be many different and contradictory things at the same time, and Vermeesch’s conception of poetry is irrelevant to your decision about what to call your own writing/performing practice. As such, Vermeesch’s chicanery is pretty obvious: he declares that his definition of poetry is objective and universal, and that (guess what) your poetry doesn’t make the grade. This unsupported declaration is not inconsequential, however. Any attempt to define poetry in exclusive terms is a fundamentally conservative gesture and usually also serves, whether consciously or not, to reinforce a hierarchy of privilege. In the comments added to the post, including Vermeesch’s responses, it gradually becomes clear that the strong feelings on both sides of the debate are motivated, at least in part, by anxiety about the prestige of the brand “poetry” — among those who would like to seize it for themselves, and those who worry that it may be diluted by newcomers. Several participants in the debate demonstrate this anxiety, which is manifested most often in the assertion that the term “poet” must be reserved for those who have paid their dues: “People should not call themselves poets if they haven’t devoted themselves to studying the craft…”; “people confuse spoken word–slam–Chuck Barris–style–Gong Show ravings with the long humble apprenticeship and sharp longing to make true art that is poetry”; “there is a history and tradition, and skilled techniques and a studied craftsmanship that today’s spoken word ignores…”

The backdrop, of course, is the lament among the page poets that the general public, and in particular spoken word audiences, “don’t really read or buy poetry books,” which is also repeated almost as a taunt by some of the pro–spoken word respondents: “It just so happens that [spoken word] is a form that is more accessible and interesting to more people than page poetry is”; “In Toronto their [sic] are 3 monthly series averaging audiences of 50-150 bodies… does that sound like any of the ‘literary’ reading series?” This is a struggle over audience share, in other words, in an audience that is small enough to begin with: much of the enmity arises because spoken word is perceived as an amateur movement in a field where even the professionals do not get much recognition. Or, as the previously quoted Connecticut poet puts it: “the appreciation of serious poetry suffers when it is forced to compete for public attention with this kind of vulgar display of second- or third-rate work.” Occasionally, what is at stake is not just attention but money: for several years there was a pitched battle at the gates of the League of Canadian Poets over whether spoken word poets who had not published books could be admitted to the organization, and allowed access to the same funding opportunities as page poets.

Anxiety about labels, and the privilege or disenfranchisement they often represent, is one source of the discomfort I mentioned earlier. To me, it is reminiscent of rhetoric used by some of the more “tolerant” opponents of gay marriage in the US: go ahead and do what you like, but just don’t call it marriage, because if that word is applied to what you do, then it will have less meaning when it is applied to what I do. (“The word ‘marriage’ means something, and that ain’t it.”) Social status only has value to the extent that it is exclusive; one couple’s declaration of marriage doesn’t really prevent another couple from enjoying their marriage, but it does lessen the power of marriage as a tool of social exclusion and status accumulation. Similarly, calling spoken word “poetry” doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying other kinds of poetry, but to those for whom poetry is their main signifier of status, it is very frustrating.


Blogger welfareartist said...

Unfortunately, one of the responses of spoken word practitioners to accusations of 'amateurishness' has been to 'professionalise' their own practice - bringing in all the usual hierarchies and squabbles over funding.

6:56 AM  

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