Sunday, January 24, 2010

from "The Humble Listener" (in chapter 2)

If spoken word is a public, communal experience, we still perceive it individually, and it is necessarily made up of private interpretive experiences. Many times I have sat, or stood, with a few other people, or in a huge crowd, as we listened quietly, or applauded loudly, as writers read, or recited from memory, their own words, or the words of others. And sometimes while I listened, not always but quite often, something peculiar has happened to me, or to my way of thinking. It has happened at events advertised as poetry readings, and also at events advertised as spoken word shows, and at poetry slams, cabaret shows, book or CD launches, lectures, sermons, panel discussions, anti-war rallies, and plenty of other events where single voices addressed a crowd. It has happened in bars, lounges, theatres, and galleries, in bookstores, malls, hotels and restaurants, in classrooms, auditoriums, libraries, churches and community centers, in apartments and lofts and suburban living rooms, in basements and on roofs, on street corners, on the lawn in parks, in tents, and once on a barge. And it has happened to me around the world, in big cities and in small towns.

What happens, when I listen to a voice addressing me as part of a crowd, is that my synapses start to spark: my mind begins to look for and draw connections, to wander in tangential directions, to churn productively. There is something about being spoken to without any expectation that I will respond—without even any necessity that I understand—that produces this lucid mental state in me. Or perhaps, when someone is speaking to me, my mind instinctively manufactures a response even if it is a non-sequitur that I keep to myself. This phenomenon—let’s call it “productive listening”—seems to me to be induced most frequently by performances of poetry, but then, my bias is that I have been studying performance poetry for some time, and it would make sense for me to become inspired while watching it. Still, I think it is a real effect, and I think I am not alone in feeling it. It is something quite different from the effect of being impressed by the work of a particular performer. David Groff, whom I quoted earlier saying that “a poem performed is no substitute for a poem read,” had this much positive to say about poetry readings in the same article: “there is undeniable power in simply having to listen to words that are measured out at a specific pace, don’t always make marketable sense, require you to sit still, summon only your ear and not your eye, and unfold, fleetingly, in the company of others.” It is hard to say whether this “power” might originate in the speech itself, or in the writing of the speech, or in the situation: perhaps simply sitting in a quiet crowd listening to any kind of white noise would have the same effect. I suspect, though, that it is a combination of the situation and the words. Groff argues, essentially, that one of the most valuable things about poetry is the intimacy of our interaction with it. This is no doubt true in some sense, but I would simply suggest that such a personal contemplative response can happen in public just as easily as in private and be inspired by performance just as easily as by text on a page.

More interestingly, the intensity of productive listening does not seem to depend on my judgment of what the voice is saying. It happens when I listen to texts that I find brilliant and fascinating, but it also happens when I listen to texts that I otherwise find banal, obtuse, confusing, boring or objectionable. Perhaps this only means that I have a short attention span and an active imagination; my intent here is not to analyze the workings of my own mind. Rather, what I want to ask is this: what exactly are the advantages in listening to performances of texts that we find appealing, and might there be benefits in listening to performances of unappealing texts? What are the differences between them? I want to weigh the value of listening to what you do not understand, what you do not enjoy, and most importantly, what cannot be easily laundered in the markets of cultural capital.

As I noted at the beginning of this chapter, for many people, at all cultural, educational, and economic levels, spoken word (and poetry readings in general, but particularly spoken word) falls squarely in the category of “unappealing.” Such anti-fans are often vocal about their dislike of spoken word, although when asked to explain it they may have a hard time. Typically, these are the words they use to describe it: Boring. Predictable. Formulaic. Cliché. Clique-y. Pretentious. Self-indulgent. Self-righteous. Unrefined. Juvenile. Hokey. Forced to attend a spoken word event, they roll their eyes, they fidget, they grit their teeth. I’m particularly fascinated by the intensity of this almost visceral reaction, and by the vehemence of aesthetic judgments generally. Is it really so painful to listen to spoken words? There is something peculiar about it, especially considering that in our daily lives we manage to put up with a constant barrage of spoken noise in the form of advertisements, announcements, sidewalk solicitations, sermons, speeches, and spiels.

It seems, in fact, that the disgust produced by hearing a bad performance far outweighs the joy produced by a good performance. This makes sense in light of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s well-known theory of taste introduced in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. “Tastes,” he writes, “are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgusts provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others” (56). Bourdieu describes tastes as the product of social influences: an individual’s habitus—the sum of the economic and cultural contexts in which the individual has become socialized—guides aesthetic choices within the boundaries of cultural fields. The real revelation of Bourdieu’s theory, though, is that tastes are not simply dictated by social status; they are also vital tools in our efforts to gain, maintain, and enhance social status. Rather than simply expressing natural preferences, our aesthetic judgments serve to identify us as belonging to certain status groups and not others. As he puts it, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (6).


This concept of taste as a tool of social distinction also explains our anxiety over how our tastes are perceived. Music critic Carl Wilson has written an excellent book that undertakes a critical project similar to this one in many ways, except that his topic is a pop music icon he loathes. In Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Wilson writes about his struggle to understand his distaste for Celine Dion, drawing on Bourdieu’s Distinction among other sources to explore the idea of individual “taste biographies” and communal “taste worlds” within the “taste universe.” He relates his discomfort with listening to Dion’s album in his thin-walled apartment, where he knows his neighbors will hear. “It’s a minor voyage of self-discovery,” he says: “it turns out that I am not so bothered by having strangers hear me have sex, compared to how embarrassed I am by having them hear me play Let’s Talk About Love over and over” (135). A poetry performance event is capable of producing a similar social anxiety, and this is particularly true of spoken word because its cultural status is so indefinite. The participant becomes interpellated into a social structure where the lines of cultural capital are indistinct and shifting, and the result may be resentment and fear – fear that one’s status might be jeopardized, or that one’s identity might be dismantled or commandeered.

Of course, this anxiety is also based on the idea that attending a particular event or listening to certain kinds of texts can be taken to signify approval. It is assumed, in other words, that a participant’s primary relationship to an aesthetic experience is evaluative judgment. Carl Wilson worries that his neighbors will assume that he is an avid fan of Celine Dion, rather than a music critic doing research for a book. Other people worry, on some level, that if they attend a spoken word event, others will assume that they are there because it’s their “thing”—they like it, and therefore it somehow defines them. However, part of the argument I’m making about spoken word is that it tends to undermine the assumption that evaluative judgment is the natural primary relationship to the performance: as I have said, spoken word de-prioritizes aesthetic judgment in favor of accessibility and diversity.


This, I think, is one of the most significant things that spoken word has to offer: by juxtaposing work of so many different styles and artists at many different levels of ability, spoken word helps to disabuse us of the notion that the only way to interact with a poem or artwork is by classifying it according to taste. I think that Bourdieu’s work accurately describes the function of taste within a socially, culturally, and economically stratified society, and it is true that “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences” (7). However, I also think it is important to recognize that art has other powerful effects besides social classification, and that our relationships to it can be rich, multifarious, and sometimes contradictory.

I think that there is something uniquely valuable in exposure to forms that lay outside one’s usual aesthetic criteria. It is worthwhile, in other words, to hear “bad” poetry—or to hear poetry read “badly.” Is spoken word sometimes boring, cliché, pretentious, painful, absurd? Yes, it is, and the same can be said of most if not all poetry readings, because what we find to be “good” or “bad” poetry is dependent on context, on our level of engagement, and on the communities we belong to. The ability to listen productively to both appealing and unappealing texts requires a certain kind of humility, a suspension of disbelief in other people’s versions of aesthetic reality. It is somewhat analogous to John Keats’ notion of Negative Capability, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”