In our second class together, I want to present a slightly more comprehensive overview of our subject: what are the characteristics of performed texts? What are the issues involved in studying texts as performances? We will begin with an essay by poet Charles Bernstein: an introduction to his influential anthology of criticism that focused on poetry in performance. Later in the course, we will read some of the contributors he mentions.

In his essay, Bernstein talks about a performance by Amiri Baraka. An excerpt of that reading is below; give it a listen. The recording begins with an introduction by Allen Ginsberg, then Amiri Baraka reads a political statement, then he performs his poem “Afro-American Lyric.” Each of the three parts will be equally important to our discussion.

Bernstein, Charles, ed. Introduction. Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. [PDF]

Baraka, Amiri. “Afro-American Lyric.” From the Naropa Poetics Audio Archive. Amiri Baraka, Diane diPrima and Robert Duncan reading, July, 1978. (July 26, 1978) [Play or download mp3]

Here are some more recordings of Amiri Baraka, if you’re interested.

Here are some more recordings mentioned by Bernstein:

Vachel Lindsay performing “The Congo.”

Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” (a few versions).

Carl Sandburg reading.

Many other poets Bernstein mentions—Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Gertrude Stein—are also found on PennSound, and Langston Hughes is on the Poetry Archive.

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  1.   nmatth01

    “Simple”

    The hardest aspect to reconcile (for me) when listening to Barka’s “Afro-American Lyric” is the ensnarement that goes with attempting to understand all the words as opposed to the sounds. With no written transcript to access, the verse flows in a stultifying stutter that twines a steadily building fervor with repeated pleas of “seeeimple”. Most notable is the transformative power of speech; for no written word could ever match the full spectrum of Baraka’s performance. From sly slang, to near-manic urging, Baraka delivers a message both powerful in its meaning and form.
    Like I initially stated, it’s hard to plough through the miasma of listening in an attempt to just “hear”—it seems contradictory at first. Yet after repeated listens, the performance has a rhythm all its own, ending in Baraka’s true message: “Only Revolution Will Set Us Free”. The words meld with the rhythms, almost get lost in the tempos and cadences of Baraka’s voice, and it is this above all us, that truly showcases poetry as a performative art.
    Lastly, I was left curious as to the influences of the prefaces on the reception of the poem. Ginsberg’s introduction, coupled with Baraka’s own political ideologies, play quite the part in setting the stage for “Afro-American Lyric”. They till the respective “earth” of the listener, and prepare and construct a scenario ripe for the verse of Baraka. I wonder if one were to divorce the performance from the introductions would it succeed in diminishing its power?

  2.   coreyfrost

    “The miasma of listening” — a great phrase. You seem to be directly reflecting what Bernstein means when he talks about “hearing what we are listening to”—in this case, the listening gets in the way of the hearing, to some degree. If you listen to Jack Spicer (in Bernstein’s epigraph), no one who really hears poetry listens to poetry at all.

    As for your last question, it’s a good one: would we perceive the poem in the same way without the intro? (That goes out to everyone.) I think that Baraka’s statement, probably more than Ginsberg’s intro, creates a context (a frame) for the interpretation of the poem, and it’s a political, oppositional context. How does Baraka’s poem relate to what Bernstein calls “official verse culture?” How did you understand that phrase?

    Another phrase from Bernstein I’m eager to get your responses to: the “anti-expressivist poetry reading,” which he says is one of the “least spectaclized events in our public culture,” and “the essence of the medium.” He is placing more value, in other words, on less dramatic, less animated, less expressive performances of poetry… how do you feel about this slant?

  3.   Andrei Lee

    While reading Bernstein, I didn’t really understand what he meant by the term, ‘iconicity.’ He says that it refers to the ability of something to present something rather than represent it, but that seems pretty abstract to me and I didn’t really get it. Another thing I was thinking about was a topic that came up when I took the 636 class, History of Literary Criticism. What determines and defines high or low culture, and does high or low culture really matter? That seemed to go along with what Bernstein was talking about with the study of things like sounds vs. speech. We tend to take some sounds at face value but we think more critically and interpretively with speech. I don’t really like theory too much, but one thing that I do enjoy about it is that there are no questions that you can’t ask; we continuously probe at our assumptions.

    I’m looking forward to reading and studying this material because it reminds me about why I’m in school trying to study literature a little bit. I think of literature not as just books, but the text we live in on a day to day basis. You don’t just think interpretively and critically when you crack open Shakespeare, but when you pretty much take anything in. I guess our mindset gets simultaneously sharpened and muddled in this exercise and it affects our perspective. I never thought about it in the context of orality, aurality, and all that stuff so it should be interesting.

    -Andrei

  4.   James

    I feel that in order to grasp Amiri Baraka’s style fully, we should keep Ginsberg’s anecdote at the beginning in mind. Some could say that Baraka was mocking the written word by keeping a correspondence on toilet paper. However, I think it falls into line with what Baraka says during his speech just before the poem. He equates culture with economic classes, regarding the old-fashion, metrical poetry of yesterday as a bourgeois product. If the proletariats are meant to have a voice, they must debase it and drag it down to their class.

    We then see what he feels is a proletarian poem; “Afro-American Lyric” is a piece that is at times both jarring and baffling. However, Baraka retains a sense of rhythm in the poem, done in the moment through a series of repetitions and stretching out of words into a stutter (e.g. “free-e-e-e-e”). So by the end of the poem, the audience can derive a certain comfort from the musicality of the piece. They almost expect what words would be altered and what words would be repeated. It is in this same breath that we can admit that Baraka manages to skew what could have otherwise been an ordinary poem on paper into something completely different when spoken.

    I personally found it ironic that while Baraka abhors the bourgeois concept of rhythm, he still produces a poem that recognizes the point of rhythm, albeit a rather-distorted version of it. While Ginsberg pointed out the symbiosis of American literature and freeform, I feel that each of the poets he mentioned (Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams) commit to a certain rhythm through their own idiosyncrasies. Although it’s not the same as old-fashioned meter, both achieve the same purpose of guiding the audience and establishing the poet’s voice.

    To end, I feel this quote from Bernstein would suffice: he says in his essay that “[t]his is no mere embellishment of the poem but a restaging of its meaning” (8). If we were to take this out of context for a moment, we could argue that Baraka’s poem doesn’t rebel against time-honored poetic conventions per se. Instead, it just offers its own interpretation of the matter. The dramatic spoken piece can still flow just as smoothly as a dry poem on paper can.

  5.   Sean Nicholson

    Before listening to the recording for this class I had been familiar with some of the work of Amiri Baraka. In an undergraduate class I had read and listened to a performance of one of his poems titled, “Who Blew Up America”, which calls into question the ‘true’ cause and culprit of the September 11th attacks. While listening to the lengthy introduction this all came back to me and to some extent clouded my listening of “Afro-American Lyric”. I thought that providing an audio clip with only the poem and not the introduction of Baraka’s speech at the beginning would have provided an experience where the poem was the focus and not necessarily the political beliefs of Baraka. If I had heard only the poem I would have been able to question what it was Baraka meant when he was calling for revolution. However, in perspective with his remarks before the poem it is clear that by revolution he means establishing a socialist government that works for the people.
    He exhibited many of the same techniques in both of the readings that I’ve heard, including many that Bernstein outlined on pg. 16 of his introduction. These techniques include calibrated stagger, pitch alteration, slurring, sonorous chant stretching, etc. I tend to agree with James’ post in the idea that these techniques make the value of the performance more than that of the written words on the page. Or as Bernstein would say on the topic, “Unsounded poetry remains inert marks on a page, waiting to be called into use by saying, or hearing, the words aloud” (pg.7). It is not through reading but only through performance that one can truly understand Baraka’s poetry.

  6.   Joshua Lindenbaum

    It “sounds” as if Berstein is insulted that the performance of writing is ignored and very seldom studied. This collection of essays seems to be his attempt at putting the spotlight onto the performance of word, rather than the reading of it. He wants people to have the same appreciation he has for sound. But this is unlikely to ever happen.

    It is true many things are lost when a piece of writing is not performed: the tone of voice, hand movements, inflection, accent, volume, eye-contact and so on . . . but how much can you absorb from a poem that is being performed? There are poems I have had to read twenty times before I could fully understand them. Not to say that a reading of the poem wouldn’t assist me in my comprehension, a matter of fact, the reading of certain poems may be better understood aloud. But some poems are so deep how could you possibly take everything in?

    This is first time I’ve heard the phrase “close listening.” I suppose with recording devices, you are now able to listen to a performed piece over and over to fully grasp its meaning. I find it interesting how the introduction argues against the view that the sounds people make are arbitrary in contrast to intentioned writing. Well, the word arbitrary is arbitrary. What isn’t? Perception of reality is filtered through our personality. Therefore, are perception of reality is arbitrary. The attempt at objectivity is as vein as trying to create dry water. And who is to say writing is not arbitrary. How many times have you read something into a piece that the writer did not intend?

    I would say the sounds and written words are equally important. The close reading and close listening both have their place. But I would have to agree with Bernstein that sound is neglected, and its importance not highlighted nor studied. I was told by one professor to read coldly, that poetry was not to be read with emotion. Well, he was wrong. Poetry is meant to be spoken. A performing poet should take you back to the place where he or she was when they wrote the piece. To read a poem coldly is worse than taking away from the meaning, it’s not giving the words meaning. After all, before writing there was speech.

    Have we forgotten about our roots? Or does a book in the palm of our hands give us a more sense of control in which we direct the words, assign voice, and direct the story in our own heads? I don’t know. I don’t know if I care. How does that sound?

  7.   Najila N

    In his piece, Bernstein claims that he wishes to “overthrow” the common idea that the text of a poem is not as important as the performance of the poem. Without having realized it until now, I have always believed that the performance of a poem is just as important as the written piece itself – and at times perhaps even more so. By performing a poem out loud to an audience, I feel that it gives substance and a validity to the piece as well as secure a place for it in a wider and different audience and in the world. It broadens the idea of the poem so that it is not just considered “literature” but also a piece of art. Baraka’s performance of his poem cements this idea for me. Just the way he stretches words like “think” (th-in-k) and “simple” (sss-eee-m pull) it adds a bit of power to the poem, one that might not have otherwise existed for a reader of the piece. It gives an essence to the words, kind of like elongating the word “simple” so that the word itself is no longer simple in nature and stretching “think” so that it does force the listener to “think!” At least that is what it did for me.

    One other thing that I’ll comment on is when Bernstein mentions that there is a “common dislike among poets of actor’s reading of poems… the “acting” takes precedence over letting the words speak for themselves.” I can understand why the poets would feel that way but at this point I am uncertain of where I, myself, stand on this point. It brought to mind a program I watched last December on the Discovery channel Howard Zinn’s “The People Speak” where musicians and actors performed several important historical documents as well as songs and poems about what freedom means and what people went through to achieve it. At that time, I did not feel that the work itself was diminished because a seasoned actor performed the piece. Instead, I felt that the actor was able to bring the piece to life, so to speak. But, now I realize, not everyone will feel this way.

  8.   gfl11131988

    Queens College
    Professor Corey Frost
    ENGL 781
    Response # 1
    George Festin Lorenzo
    9/1/2010

    Both the text by Charles Bernstein and the sound clip that featured Amari Baraka were powerful in explaining the way text’s are spoken and the way they can impact a speech. Although the speech was not read but rather listened to in the clip, it can be agreed with Bernstein when he writes how, “Hearing Baraka read this poem on a tape of his July 26, 1978 performance at the Naropa Institute, however, gives a distinctly different impression” (8). The way Baraka spoke, such as the emphasis of certain words or the elongation of specific syllables, truly helps nail down a feeling in the speech that cannot be attained by simply reading it.
    The key part of the speech is the poem recited towards the end of the clip, and how Afro-American Lyric¬ is truly spoken with such articulation, especially when specific syllables are given a type of tone. Admittedly so, when Baraka got to the lines where “simple shit” is said repeatedly, it gets extremely repetitive and quite annoying. However, I feel that’s the very point of Baraka reading it and it explains why he reads it in that exact manner. It grabs the attention of the audience and that type of attention that is grabbed simply cannot be taken in reading. It needs a speech and that is where Baraka and this sound clip really come into relevance.
    One aspect of poetry reading that Bernstein points out is when he writes, “poetry reading has been a means for poetry to cross over to a wider audience” (22). I feel that holds much relevance to this topic at hand and the sound clip by Amari Baraka helps elucidate on that point because as much as people may not have interest in his speech at first, if it was to just be read, hearing it changes the playing field and helps peak a serious interest in it.

  9.   srogers101

    Sidney Deane: Look man, you can listen to Jimi but you can’t hear him. There’s a difference man. Just because you’re listening to him doesn’t mean you’re hearing him.

    Bernstein’s defense of the necessity of everything available to us takes on mystical value in poetry’s ability to reconcile the wandering consciousness with that clairvoyant ability to wonder something like “doesn’t melancholy sound like it means.” He dismisses the notion of the lexical as something to be ashamed of, some sick mutation of our nature that precludes us from babbling and grunting at each other without the shame in our inability to command the specious precision of a complex and alienating bourgeois semiotic system. The Sophist: Because nature is nature and us being a part of nature and language a part of us so language is a part of nature and so on. Which is to say he lacks the righteous contention of Baraka, who seems quite sure shit is seeimple, seeimple shit, seeimpulse shit, simply impulse etc. Because to hear him first or listen to him first, I suppose it has to be hear him first, is to notice that the sounds aren’t words but in the end of course they are. And he knows it too. (The righteousness bred of necessity as opposed to sincerity) His breaking of the words in the poem is the rebellion I suppose, rendering them to noise and in doing so kind of tells us that what is going on isn’t really a secret if you pay attention. By creating these portmanteaus with the intentional bleeding of the vowels he creates his own propaganda from “the man’s” own system. Bernstein, also likely to coin a new word with Joycean aplomb, just doesn’t seem to have the antagonism necessary to murder bourgeois literacy. Humanity’s penchant for self-loathing aside, language, as Bernstein reminds everyone does help and is a companion of sound, not it’s adversary. His pathos resonates as his essay begins to close, substantiating poetry as an effective medium, even dismissing the need for an egalitarian approach as much of its potency is in its distance, which is the whole point, I think. “Presence and absence.” It’s vitality is it’s demand on the audience to work through things superficially uninterested in sense because it offers a chance at the unity of self or at least a chance to hang out with Wesley Snipes.

  10.   Danielle

    Bernstein raises many questions in this introduction, but one of the most fundamental seems to question “the contribution of sound to meaning” (4). This is a personal observation that is a bit of a tangent, but as I was reading this I began to think of various churches, and how differently they express things. Comedians have a few skits about the difference between a Baptist service and a Catholic service. There is the image everyone at the Baptist service is clapping and jumping up and down and passionately praying. In a Catholic service, at least the ones I attend, everyone mumbles the responses and stands up or kneels on cue with the lethargy of doing jury duty. How do these scenarios relate sound to meaning? Are the passionate, singing, clapping parishioners praying more effectively than those mumbling and dragging along through the mass? Most would say their difference in sound and enthusiasm does not determine which group is more pious.

    Bernstein’s article lists the different poetic devices, such as enjambment and caesura, that lend themselves to changing how the poem sounds when read silently or aloud. When I have written my own poetry in workshops or privately, I’ve always wondered how someone else would break and enjamb the same poem if I presented it typed out in one long line, or simply like prose in a large block form. These devices are a sort of short cut for the oral presentation of the poem, and if I placed dashes to indicate caesuras in different places for different readers, it would sound different. Although these are visual aspects of the poem, the dashes and the end of a line in the middle of a phrase, they are necessary for the meaning, and since a visual sight of the text is usually all that’s available, the visual is connected to the auditory. In a way even when people silently read a poem, they hear it in their head using these conventions and devices of poetry.

    I don’t understand Benjamin’s psychological take on the origin and the anorigin.

    “The poetic function… rematerializes language, returns it from ‘speech’ back to sound” is a great way to clarify this debate about how poetry is different when heard as opposed to read (28). I think about how different a speech sounds from a poem when both are read aloud, and my ears have been trained enough to know the difference, and yet I have trouble explaining the difference beyond that poetry has more dramatic pauses and usually more flowery language. However that is a very flimsy definition of their differences, and yet I am fairly confident I can tell the difference nine times out of ten. The quote on page 21, “sound registers the sheer physicality of language,” seems to help me explain this question. Again wondering how I would be able to explain my knowledge of a poem separate from a speech separate from an essay if the three were read aloud, I would have to say that a poem is not as flat as the other two. I don’t mean interesting or better-crafted, I mean more three dimensional in some way. This might only be making sense to me, but the phrase “physicality of language” seems to resonate with the energy of poetry, it’s physical presence that can be strong on a page but even more profoundly moving when heard, or even just easier to understand and that is how poetry is unique. Its sound is robust and its extra room for meaning and understanding is hearty, and these qualities are more present from hearing a poem than silently reading one.

  11.   sarahcoluccio

    One of the things which struck me most about Baraka’s poem, and the way in which he read it aloud, was the distinct rhythm of an almost “non-rhythm” he used in helping his words. To flow. The choppiness of his choice of words, such as the repeating and stuttered phrases, made it difficult to pay attention on the first listen. From the very first sentence we are exposed to the broken flow of the poem, so that it comes as no surprise when much of the rest of the poem is recited in the same way as he progresses. On listening to the poem again, I was able to get a better idea not only of the way Baraka plays with the words, emphasizing and repeating those which he feels are the mouth pieces of the poem, but also the way in which he uses his tone to create a sense of frenzy, almost, by speaking faster and louder as the intensity and urgency of the poem grow.
    I also felt that the repetition and stuttered recitation of the poem actually helped me to listen to it more closely and understand it better. Because the words did not flow as freely as I had anticipated they word while Baraka recited them, I was forced to pay closer attention to each word so as to determine its exact meaning, and its “placement” in both each line and in the entire poem. On listening to the poem several more times, I was able to, in my head in a way, sort of visualize the poem as Baraka was speaking, and arrange and rearrange the words so that the repeated phrases (such as s-e-e-e-imple) took on a new meaning for me each time. I admire Baraka’s ability not only to play with words in such a way that they can have such varied meaning and emphasis in one poem, but also to know that his listener (as well I am sure as his readers, if this poem were to be read instead of heard) will need to give that much more focus to the poem in order to grasp its true meaning and beauty, both of the rhythm and of the structure which are both so unconventional, yet unequivocally still “literature.”

  12.   catcruz

    I wasn’t familiar with any of Amiri Baraka’s past art upon hearing this beautifully recited work. I felt ashamed admitting that to myself as I still am, wishing I would’ve known more of this wonderful artist prior to having been given this assignment. With that being said, after listening to this masterpiece I stand firm on the belief that I am not, by any means, an expert in the art of dissecting poems, and many at times, miss out on what others see, but I guess that is where the true beauty of poetry lies; everyone see’s, feels, or believes a different message is always being conveyed and no one is ever wrong for if it speaks to them in such a way, there’s a reason. Through my understanding of “Afro-American Lyric,” I truly felt as though Baraka was speaking to me. It awakened in me this urge for anger, to fight for what I believe in and to question all the things I thought were true. His introduction into his own poem was truly well addressed as well. As a listener it had, to me, all the important necessities to capture my interest. The tone and strength of his voice, as well as his clarity throughout, were consistent and perfectly exposed in such a manner that highly appealed to me. I found myself wondering, what is really art? Who is it aimed at? I, then, quickly felt as though Baraka was absolutely correct for depicting art in our society a form of propaganda in one way or another, if carefully analyzed. Art is one of the best ways in which propaganda is sold and embedded into our minds everyday; because we confuse its beauty for its true meaning and we are many at times left feeling the way the artist had initially intended for us to feel or view a certain subject as they had wished, it is propaganda. At the end of the day, art created by man, is just that.. -art created by man… men attempting to convey their thoughts and feelings via an eccentric form, leaving its audience baffled and in awe of how successful the artist was in opening the audiences’ minds to the artist’s ideas. The whole concept is truly that of a genius. I mean here I am, myself, questioning all that is art, wondering how many times I have been brain-washed to believe a certain idea because it has been depicted to me in such a manner that sidetracked me off completely. Yet while I am sitting here getting angry for having failed to not have seen how easily it is to be bought into an artist’s ideas, leaving me to believe it has been done to me many times before, I quickly realize here I am now finding myself shaped to think as how Amiri Baraka would have wished… questioning all that is art.. and the words left lingering in my head are “you see that were not free…..despite its beauty, this world is ugly..”

  13.   Danielle Mooney

    Bernstein raises many questions in this introduction, but one of the most fundamental seems to question “the contribution of sound to meaning” (4). This is a personal observation that is a bit of a tangent, but as I was reading this I began to think of various churches, and how differently they express things. Comedians have a few skits about the difference between a Baptist service and a Catholic service. There is the image everyone at the Baptist service is clapping and jumping up and down and passionately praying. In a Catholic service, at least the ones I attend, everyone mumbles the responses and stands up or kneels on cue with the lethargy of doing jury duty. How do these scenarios relate sound to meaning? Are the passionate, singing, clapping parishioners praying more effectively than those mumbling and dragging along through the mass? Most would say their difference in sound and enthusiasm does not determine which group is more pious.

    Bernstein’s article lists the different poetic devices, such as enjambment and caesura, that lend themselves to changing how the poem sounds when read silently or aloud. When I have written my own poetry in workshops or privately, I’ve always wondered how someone else would break and enjamb the same poem if I presented it typed out in one long line, or simply like prose in a large block form. These devices are a sort of short cut for the oral presentation of the poem, and if I placed dashes to indicate caesuras in different places for different readers, it would sound different. Although these are visual aspects of the poem, the dashes and the end of a line in the middle of a phrase, they are necessary for the meaning, and since a visual sight of the text is usually all that’s available, the visual is connected to the auditory. In a way even when people silently read a poem, they hear it in their head using these conventions and devices of poetry.

    I don’t understand Benjamin’s psychological take on the origin and the anorigin.

    “The poetic function… rematerializes language, returns it from ‘speech’ back to sound” is a great way to clarify this debate about how poetry is different when heard as opposed to read (28). I think about how different a speech sounds from a poem when both are read aloud, and my ears have been trained enough to know the difference, and yet I have trouble explaining the difference beyond that poetry has more dramatic pauses and usually more flowery language. However that is a very flimsy definition of their differences, and yet I am fairly confident I can tell the difference nine times out of ten. The quote on page 21, “sound registers the sheer physicality of language,” seems to help me explain this question. Again wondering how I would be able to explain my knowledge of a poem separate from a speech separate from an essay if the three were read aloud, I would have to say that a poem is not as flat as the other two. I don’t mean interesting or better-crafted, I mean more three dimensional in some way. This might only be making sense to me, but the phrase “physicality of language” seems to resonate with the energy of poetry, it’s physical presence that can be strong on a page but even more profoundly moving when heard, or even just easier to understand and that is how poetry is unique. Its sound is robust and its extra room for meaning and understanding is hearty, and these qualities are more present from hearing a poem than silently reading one.

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  • Listening “Literature” implies a written text. But what about the audiotext? Why do we refer to the “audience” (from the Latin audiens, listening) of a literary work? This course is about listening to literature and reading performance. ____________________________________
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