POETRY ON THE ROCKS
by Jonathan Graham
(This article was first published in Letter eX way back in April of 1992.)
Poets who compete with scotch for their audiences' attention practice a perilous art. And though Chicago's saloon poets appear as trusty as a familiar bar rag—doing their work without frills or commotion—they are fragile and easy to rip. That's why they sometimes speak in too-loud voices and grip their microphone stands first like canes, then like muskets: they're frightened both of what they aren't, and what they are.
Stuck in the middle of the cultural seesaw, teetering between the literati and vaudeville, often without knowing which is which, "performance poets" are asked to choose between being T. S. Eliot in his tweediest tweed, or an organ grinder's monkey, reciting her coincidental rendering of Shakespeare's Sonnet 36. But knowing that neither Eliot nor the Monkey is likely to draw raves at the Green Mill or Estelle's, these poets choose neither. By staying in the middle, they say, they avoid both standing above or sinking below the public they presume to serve.
Such abstention has both pros and cons. And although it's true to the "ground-breaking" nature of the city's poetry scene that observers' labels should be dismissed with a single, outstretched finger, it's also dangerous. For by refusing to name and explain who and why they are, these poets run the risk of being defined by what they aren't and how they fail.
Living under a negative definition wouldn't be so tough if it weren't for this: the performance poetry movement presumes to reach a positive goal. By reading poetry aloud in bars, the poets say, verse is taken off the dusty shelf of academe and delivered to the masses. This transference isn't made by sacrificing beauty, though; it is simply poetry that comes from a different time and space but still attempts to comment on life, and to make that life better.
But in its attempt to make the poetry more accessible, performance poetry does little more than create another poetry establishment which is different than the one that rules the universities, but no better. Poets who read in bars—particularly during poetry slams—must follow rules no less confining than the ones that govern "academic verse." Specifically, they are urged to play to and for a particular audience and to avoid the alleged stodginess of the Norton Anthology. This usually translates into gutsy, emotional verse written to be heard, not seen. Yet they are also asked—as are all contemporary poets, it seems—first, to "be true to themselves" in their poetry.
A tough row to hoe, that is. For the very idea that performers, who are necessarily shackled with the responsibility of pleasing a very particular audience, could and should put their own needs (e.g. the need for self-understanding and expression) above the needs of the audience, is a contradiction. And this tenuous situation is not helped by poets who present their work in first person, via direct address.
Performance poets spend much of their time telling their audiences—in whispers or screams—what they think and how they feel. And regardless of whether the listeners felt happy, sad, mad, or nothing at all, they are obliged to clap, for bringing poetry to the masses, they agree, is a good thing, and is best appreciated in the moment of the first hearing. Probing criticism, on the other hand, is the province of the academics who, if we believe the champions of saloon poetry, have nearly ruined verse anyway.
But when performance poets take the stage alone, determined to speak their minds simply because they can, they dispense with the notion that poetry should make any particular connection with the masses it supposedly exists to reach. Performance poetry then, is not much different than the so-called "elitist" poetry which proceeded it. Despite their populist mission, performance poets demand that audiences listen to them, without making any particular effort to speak to any experience other than their own.
There is little that's universal about Chicago's Saloon poetry; finally, it's no more inclusive than wrinkled "classics" professors laud. A free-verse rant about contemporary alienation may be more attuned to the idiom of the masses than a turn-of-the-century love sestina, but it's not necesarily more eloquent. As long as poets are more concerned with themselves than anything else, they may as well read in closets instead of bars.
If the only alternative to academic poetry that performance poetry offers is different poets saying different things, untempered by conventions and criticism, then it does little to advance the cause of poetry. In fact, performance poets are as inclined to canon-making as traditional academic writers, as they crown "Slam" champs and build hierarchies as arbitrary as the Great Books, and as hard to topple. Actually, since saloon poets continue to cling steadfastly to their well established rules at a time when many academics are engaged in rigorous self-questioning, performance poetry may be a big step backwards.
For if this great populist poetry movement simply enthrones new ruling masters, then all that separates them from the despicable (but increasingly mythical) English teachers they're rebelling against is the Saloon poets' preference for denim. And if they create a new set of rules to define "quality" poetry, then their agenda is no less stifling than the aficionados of "perfect" meter. Sadly, this is where the saloon poets have ended up.
By applauding the loudly emotional while poo-pooing the quietly contemplative, the aristocrats of Chicago's poetry scene have made the very kind of value judgment they supposedly have risen up against. And rather than creating a new poetry that's by and for all the people, they offer yet another version of poetry by the anointed and for the converted. While what the performance poets are doing is certainly no worse than their academic counterparts have already done, they're hard-pressed to prove it better.
--Jonathan Graham, April, 1992
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