Monday, October 17, 2011

So a Poet Walks Into a Bar: The Poetry Reading as Rhetorical Situation

Here’s the full text of  “So a Poet Walks into a Bar: The Poetry Reading as Rhetorical Situation,” my contribution to this year’s ALSCW conference.  If you want to cite it, the format would be:

Archambeau, Robert.  "So a Poet Walks into a Bar: The Poetry Reading as Rhetorical Situation."  Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers Conference.  Boston University, Boston MA.  16 October 2011.  Conference Presentation.

So a Poet Walks into a Bar: The Poetry Reading as Rhetorical Situation

So a poet walks into a bar to read his work to an audience.  But what if it isn't a bar?  What if it's a university auditorium, or a bookshop specializing in, say, works by women writers?  What if it's a conference room at the A.W.P. Convention, where the creative writing professors slap one another on the back and try to 'place' grad students and manuscripts with English departments and their journals?  What if it's the 92nd Street Y, or a presidential inauguration, or a funeral?  What if it's not a bar the poet walks into, but a recording studio, where he'll make a podcast or mp3 for an audience he's unlikely to meet?  What if it isn't a poet who walks into a bar to read poetry to an audience, but a reader who walks into her study to read aloud to herself from a favorite poet's work? 
            Venue matters, when poetry is read aloud: indeed, in few situations does Walter J. Ong's assertion that “a writer's audience is always a fiction,” seem less convincing than in a poetry reading, where the poets stand in the presence of the bodies of their listeners (9).  Who speaks, where, to whom, and to what end? — answering these questions can tell us a great deal about the nature and meaning of performed poetry.  One way to explore these questions is to adapt rhetorical theory—which has long been concerned with the specific relations of speaker, venue, and audience—to the study of poetry readings.  There are obvious limits to such an approach.  For example, it can tell us little of interest, perhaps nothing at all, about reading poetry aloud when one is alone, which may well be the most common form of spoken poetry.  What is more, there are those who would argue that whatever situation a poetry reading creates, it is not in any meaningful sense a rhetorical situation.  I'd disagree with this last criticism, but only because I'm willing to define what counts as a rhetorical situation marginally more broadly than does that most expansive of rhetorical theorists, Lloyd Bitzer.
            Bitzer, an emeritus professor of the University of Wisconsin, is generally regarded as one of the most respected rhetorical theorists of his generation, and is best known for introducing the notion of the "rhetorical situation" in an essay of that name in the inaugural issue of Philosophy and Rhetoric.  For Bitzer, there are several components to a rhetorical situation.  Firstly, and most importantly, there must be “an exigence” — a problem to be solved— “which strongly invites utterance” (5).  Situations are rhetorical when the exigence, or problem calling out to be addressed, can be altered by the “bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that it becomes mediator of change” (4). The exigence, which may or may not be consciously perceived by the speaker and the audience, is “an imperfection marked by urgency” (6); while an audience, to truly be a rhetorical audience, must consist “of those persons who are capable of being influenced by the discourse” (8): the obdurate and the obtuse alike may be an audience, but stuck in their views, or incapable of growing through engaging with discourse, they aren’t an audience susceptible to change.  As Bitzer puts it, the situation is rhetorical if "an actual or potential exigence… can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence" (6).
            In addition, a rhetorical situation contains two types of constraints.  The first are those inherent in the pre-existing situation, such as the audience’s beliefs and attitudes, as well as pertinent pre-existing “documents, facts, traditions, images, interests” (8).  The second type of constraints originate with the speaker: personal character, established style, and the like.  (Those of you with a background in rhetoric will recognize these as Aristotle’s “inartistic proofs” and “artistic proofs”).  So when a speaker enters a rhetorical situation, he or she enters a situation where some kind of change is wanted, a change that can conceivably be affected by discourse.  The speaker faces people capable of being changed, if their beliefs and ideas, and the character and style of the speaker, come together in some perfect discursive storm.
            Of course rhetoric doesn’t take place under test-lab conditions of purity.  Some rhetorical situations are simple, others much more complicated, even muddy.  There may be multiple exigences in any situation, some incompatible, and an audience may consist of multiple constituencies, concerned with different exigences and with different constraints regarding the kind of discourse that will appeal to them.
            Bitzer allows fairly broad latitude when defining what sort of situations count as rhetorical.  While his examples include political debates and Socrates’ “Apology,” he also includes situations where the simple need for information is rhetorical, if the providing of that information will have an effect in the world: the need for reporters to give details about the assassination of President Kennedy in order to calm a panicked population, for example, counts as a rhetorical situation for Bitzer, one that he seems to have struck him quite powerfully.  The exigence, in this case, is a lack of information that could lead to panic; the audience is capable of receiving information and being calmed by it, if only because they are no longer bewildered.  The speaker, knowing that he faces a worried population, and capable of projecting a certain gravitas in reporting the facts, will be successful in solving the exigence.
            As broad as Bitzer's definition of a rhetorical situation is, it doesn't extend to poetry: in fact, he specifically excludes poetry from his scheme, apparently out of a belief that poetry (as Auden so famously put it) "makes nothing happen."  It's my contention that Bitzer is too modest about the scope of his own theory, and that poetry readings tend to have some sort of raison d'ĂȘtre, that they tend, in one way or another, to ameliorate some kind of situation.  In fact, one way to understand the significance of poetry readings is to look for what sort of exigence a reading seeks to address, what imperfection in the world they seek to remedy through addressing an open-minded audience.
            So a poet walks into a bar. Let's say it's the Green Mill in Chicago, where (according the PBS documentary The United States of Poetry), "a strand of new poetry began… in 1987 when Marc Smith found a home for the poetry slam."  For Smith, there was certainly an exigence behind the slams, with their Dionysian audience participation, ad hoc systems of judging poetic value, liberally-flowing booze, and general informality.  The exigence was the perceived dryness and audience-unfriendliness of more formal poetry readings, and a resulting alienation of poetry from potential enthusiasts.  As Smith put it, the slam was to be an "up yours" to poorly attended, more effete poetry readings.  Smith wanted to change the culture of poetry by holding these readings, "because no one was listening to the poets" (see Wiltz).  In the end, the exigence was the perceived removal of poetry from informal, non-academic contexts, and the resulting marginalization of poetry.  Poetry may or may not make "nothing happen," but the poetry slam certainly attempted to make something happen.  In addressing a perceived exigence, it created a rhetorical situation.  The audience-based constraints (resistance to the idea of spending an evening sitting quietly in an uncomfortable chair listening to someone read) are addressed by physical comfort, alcohol, and a whole series of methods (foot stomping, hissing, woofing, and finger snapping are all encouraged, and have specific meanings) by which the audience is invited to participate in the performances as they happen, and in judging them when they're done.  Certainly poets performing in these circumstances may face certain constraints of their own: in order to succeed they must not consider themselves or their work above spur-of-the-moment criticism, and they tend to need either a quick wit or the ability to emote convincingly in order to ameliorate the exigence.  Poetry slams, of course, have evolved and changed, and can address many different exigences—my point here is simply to assert, contra Bitzer, that the poetry reading can indeed present a rhetorical situation.
            The poetry readings associated with the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s present what may be the clearest case of the poetry reading as a rhetorical situation in modern American literary history. The defining characteristic of the Black Arts Movement was its African-American nationalism, which in the early years manifested as a form of separatism.  Such separatism was spurred on by events of 1965 on the national level—the assassination of Malcom X—as well as on the local level—the destruction of the relative racial harmony of the Lower East Side poetry scene of the sixties through racially-motivated violence at key reading venues (see Kane, 54-55).  Although the movement quickly became national, the founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS) was of central importance, as was the move to Harlem by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka).  Poetry in the Black Arts Movement was linked with, even subordinated to, the large exigence of creating a radical culture for African-Americans outside the institutions and norms of the nation at large.  As Kaluma ya Salaam has argued, the Black Arts Movement is "the only American literary movement to advance social engagement as a sine qua non of its aesthetic…. The two hallmarks of Black Arts activity were the development of Black theater groups and Black poetry performances… and both had close ties to community organizations and issues" (Salaam).  Community formation was a central goal of the movement—its primary exigence—and ideas of individualist art or art for it's own sake were anathema.  "Black art," wrote Ron Karenga in his manifesto "On Black Art," "must be for the people, by the people and from the people. That is to say, it must be functional, collective
 and committing." "All art is collective," he continued, "there is no such thing as art for art's sake" (Karenga).  Larry Neal, another founder of the Black Arts Movement, echoed these sentiments when he proclaimed, in 1968, "the Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept" (28).
            So the exigence of Black Arts poetry readings was radical consciousness-raising and separatist community-creation.  Audiences were potentially resistant for a number of reasons, not the least being that many in the potential audience were white liberals, and others were African-Americans committed to social and cultural integration, like the writer Ishmael Reed, who was never permitted to be a member of the movement for this reason.  One controversial technique to render the crowd a "rhetorical audience" was simply to forbid white people from attending the readings. As the critic Daphne S. Reed points out,
…this very policy was endorsed by both the original Harlem venture and a number of other black arts theatres established later in several major cities. The rationale was that the presence of whites would be potentially inhibitive… and in any case whites should not be permitted to occupy seats needed for black people for whom the performance was intended and, allegedly, exclusively relevant. (54)

Beyond such extreme (and short-lived) measures, other steps were taken to overcome audience resistance in pursuit of ameliorating the exigence. These included bringing the readings to places where the communities gathered, as well as adopting a mode of address that evoked the most respected institution of African-American life.  Lorenzo Thomas describes both in a passage from his essay "Neon Griot":

With self-appointed missionary fervor, Black Arts poets extended the venues for their performances beyond storefront theaters to neighborhood community centers, church basements, taverns, and to the streets.  Not surprisingly, the dominant mode of poetry that proved effective in such settings drew upon the rhetorical conventions of the black church, which is the matrix of African-American culture. (312)

The church-based conventions, which work with what Thomas calls "…the speaking voice that trespasses into song; and an antiphonal interaction with the congregation" (314) invoked cultural authority and stressed the link between performer and audience.  So important did the specifics of the speaking voice of the Black Arts poet become that at least two poets of the movement, Sonia Sanchez and Johari Amini, came to see the written text of the poem as a performance score, akin to sheet music, with the printed poem indicating exactly how the poet wanted it to be read (see Kane, 85).
            Nowhere do we see the exigence of separatist community-creation more clearly than in LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's short poem "S.O.S."  Here, in a poem clearly written for oral delivery to a racially specific audience, we begin with a strong sense of the phatic function of language, with the poet seeking, apparently desperately, to connect to his community:

Calling black people

Calling all black people, man woman child

Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in

Black People, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling

You, calling all black people

The voice is like that of a lost radio operator seeking to connect to home base.  But the radio-operator's voice changes, in the final lines, to something else: rather than a voice in the wilderness, trying to find contact, we suddenly get something like a host's voice, or a carnival barker's, welcoming people into whatever desirable location he inhabits:

Calling all black people, come in, black people, come

on in.

From "come in" to "come on in" is a big step: the outsider becomes the insider, and the audience, at first sought desperately, is now welcomed warmly.  It is a rhetorical performance of the creation of a specifically African-American community, and when Jones/Baraka read it, he showed that the poetry reading could indeed be a rhetorical situation.
            As Bitzer pointed out, rhetorical situations can be complex things, and may involve multiple exigences, and multiple audiences, in a single occasion.  I'd like to end by gesturing toward one such complex rhetorical situation: the situation of the contemporary African-American poet in the most prominent form of contemporary poetry reading: the academically-sponsored poetry event.
            The exigences of university poetry readings vary considerably, of course; and I've been privy to more than one conversation in which it became clear that the sponsoring poet-academic and the visiting poet saw the main rationale for the reading in terms of personal career logrolling, a matter of "I'll help you put an item on your vita by hosting your reading if you help me in much the same way."  But the more legitimate exigence of the university poetry reading, the reason generally given to the deans and chairs who hold the purse-strings, tends to be pedagogical.  That is, the imperfection the reading seeks to ameliorate is some combination of a lack of student knowledge about poetry, and a lack of student sympathy for poetry, which the presence of a (charismatic, one hopes) poet will change. 
            When an African-American poet walks into a university reading situation, though, we tend to enter one of Bitzer's complex rhetorical situations, with multiple exigences and multiple audiences.  To some degree, the exigence is the same as in most university poetry readings: there's a need for the audience to learn about poetry-as-poetry.  But the complex web of American social history, including one of the main legacies of the Black Arts movement — identity politics — means that there's another exigence, having to do with the politics of representation.  As anyone who has ever tapped an academic cultural diversity fund as a means of bringing an African-American poet to a campus knows, universities tend to recognize two real or perceived exigences related to cultural diversity: the need to show African-American students that their community is represented in university cultural programming, and the need to expose non-African-American students to African-American culture, as part of the mission of spreading appreciation for cultural diversity.  So an African-American poet walks into a university auditorium.  He or she is there for a multiple exigence: to increase knowledge of, and sympathy for, poetry, and to represent African-American culture for African-American students, and to non-African American students.  It's a kind of palimpsest, with a more moderate, pluralist version of the Black Arts exigence of cultural representation overlaid with the discipline-specific logic of the modern university, in which poetry readings are held for the advancement of knowledge of poetry.
            As we've seen with slam poetry and Black Arts poetry, the rhetorical situation of the poetry reading matters for how poetry is performed.  Consider Harryette Mullen, whose success in both academic and identity politics-centered poetic contexts is rarely paralleled (she has won an award from the Black Arts Academy and taught in an ivy league university).  Her work sends out signals to a number of communities, referencing the classical canon, the modernist and avant-garde forebears of contemporary experimental work, and iconic elements of African-American culture: Mullen has described her work as a textual confluence of Gertrude Stein, Sappho, and the blues, in which "Sappho meets the blues at the crossroads" (see Bedient 654).  The work combines these influences in such a way that allows her, in performance, to emphasize any one of these elements in a single poem.  This is accomplished largely through the polyvalent nature of her language.
            The critic Kate Pearcy has described Mullen's poems as involving a great deal of "homophonic punning and word play," and noted that "reading possibilities are therefore highly provisional" (2): one may perform the poems with varying degrees of ambiguity or clarity.  Here, for example, is the prose poem "Of a girl, in white," which I and others experienced, when we heard it performed, as a poem about eros and about word play—a poem, that is, in the traditions of Sappho and of Gertrude Stein:

Of a girl, in white, between the lines, in the spaces where nothing is written. Her starched petticoats, giving him the slip. Loose lips, a telltale spot, where she was kissed, and told. Who would believe her, lying still between the sheets. The pillow cases, the dirty laundry laundered. Pillow talk-show on a leather couch, slips in and out of dreams. Without permission, slips out the door. A name adores a Freudian slip.

Once, after I spoke on Mullen's work, the African-American poet Tyrone Williams approached me to say that he'd attended a reading by Mullen in which the African-American audience, coming with their own expectations and interpretive norms (with, to use Bitzer's terms, different external constraints than I and my group brought when we heard the poem) received the poem as primarily about racial 'passing.'  The fact that Mullen's work admits of such interpretations, and makes itself so readily available to different emphases in performance, gives an indication of one reason why Mullen's work has been so successful in the complex rhetorical situations where it is so often performed.
            We get a clear sense of the possibilities for different emphases in performance in Mullen's work from this stanza of an untitled poem in her 1995 collection Muse & Drudge:

you can sing their songs
with words your way
put it over to the people
know what you are doing

Is singing "their songs" with "words your way" a matter of the contemporary, postmodern poet appropriating tradition (of Stein riffing on Sappho)? Or is it a matter of the African-American poet appropriating white or Eurocentric traditions (the blues meeting Stein and Sappho at the crossroads)?  It's all in how the pronouns (which lack specific referents in the poem) are performed, how the poet chooses to perform them with the audience in the room.  Contrast these lines to Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka's "S.O.S.," and the importance of the rhetorical situation for the poetry and its performance becomes clear: Mullen, who habitually enters complex rhetorical situations with multiple audiences, is ambiguous and flexible, where Jones/Baraka, entering clearly defined rhetorical situations, is emphatic, community-oriented, and identity-group specific.
            I don't mean to suggest that I've done anything like perform a proper taxonomy of types of poetry readings here, nor do I want to claim I've covered all of the possibilities for slam poetry, Black Arts poetry, or the contemporary academic poetry reading (for poets African-American or otherwise).  Rather, I've hoped to indicate, in what can only be a preliminary manner, that we will enrich our interpretations of the performance of poetry by understanding the rhetorical situation of those readings, and that we have much to gain by bringing the tradition of rhetorical theory to bear on poetic performance.

Works Cited

Bedient, Calvin.  "The Solo Mysterioso Blues."  Callaloo 19.3 (Autumn 1996): 651-669.

Bitzer, Lloyd.  “The Rhetorical Situation.”  Philosophy and Rhetoric 1.1 (January 1968): 1-14.

Kane, Daniel.  All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Karenga, Ron.  "On Black Art."  Modern American Poetry, the University of Illinois.  .

Neal, Larry.  "The Black Arts Movement."  The Drama Review.  12.4 (Summer 1968): 28-39).

Ong, Walter J.  “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.”  PMLA  1975 90:1 (1975): 9-21.

Pearcy, Kate.  "A Poetics of Opposition? Race and the Avant-Garde."  Paper read at the Conference on Contemporary Poetry: Poetry and the Public Sphere, Rutgers University: April 24-27, 1997.

Reed, Daphne S.  "LeRoi Jones: High Priest of the Black Arts Movement."  Educational Theater Journal.  22.1 (March 1970): 53-59.

Salaam, Kaluma ya.  "Historical Overview of the Black Arts Movement."  Modern American Poetry, University of Illinois.

Thomas, Lorenzo.  "Neon Griot: The Functional Role of Poetry Readings in the Black Arts Movement."  In Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998: 300-324.

The United States of Poetry.  Dir. Joshua Blum and Bob Holman.  Washington Square Films/PBS, 1995.

Wiltz, Teresa.  "Slam Dunked: Poets Duke it Out in Chicago."  The Washington Post (August 18, 1999): C1.