restricted access How Not to Read Closely
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Contemporary Literature 47.3 (2006) 472-482

How Not to Read Closely
Reviewed by
Brian McHale
The Ohio State University
Peter Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. xviii + 237 pp. $29.95, paper.

In April 1997, at the "Poetry and the Public Sphere" conference at Rutgers, I experienced a failed poetry reading. The reading was given by Armand Schwerner, a New York poet a generation older than myself, whom I had met a couple of years earlier, and who has since died. Schwerner was reputed to be a virtuoso reader of his own poetry, especially of The Tablets, his complex faux-translation from the Sumerian, part scholarly hoax, part concrete poem. Never having heard him read, I was curious to know how he would perform poetry apparently so deeply implicated in the print medium. As it turned out, the canniness of Schwerner's solutions were lost on his audience, many of whom were there mainly in order to participate in the "open mike" session later in the evening. Expecting the sort of autobiographical self-dramatizing typical of poetry slams and other "spoken-word" events, they were clearly impatient with Schwerner's layered impersonations of ancient priests and shamans and modern crank scholars, and his deadpan descriptions of the damage allegedly inflicted on the (nonexistent) text of The Tablets by the passage of time. Powerless to intervene, all I could do was watch from the sidelines as two traditions of spoken-word performance and two sets of assumptions about poetry sailed right past each other, in mutual miscomprehension.

So I am grateful to Peter Middleton, who, in his new book, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary [End Page 472] Poetry, provides tools and perspectives for recuperating that experience of failure, and others like it, and converting them to critical and theoretical use. Middleton himself analyzes a number of poetry readings in the course of his book, some of them successful, such as, famously, the first reading of "Howl" at the Six Gallery in 1955, but others more or less failures, such as Denise Levertov's reading at Goucher College in 1970 (as reported in a somewhat self-serving poem, "The day the audience walked out on me, and why"), or the occasion in 1982 when the British avant-gardist Allen Fisher failed to connect with an audience of what ought to have been his natural allies, the Bay Area Language poets (39–42). Middleton is interested in such successes and failures because they illuminate poetry's struggle for legitimation in an era when almost any other public discourse can boast stronger institutional validation than poetry can (46). Every poetry reading dramatizes or even allegorizes this contest for legitimacy; it constitutes (though Middleton doesn't quite say so) something like a petit récit in Jean-François Lyotard's sense, one of those short-range, small-scale "little narratives" or language games that serve postmoderns in lieu of the historical master narratives that we no longer trust. When it succeeds, a poetry reading can constitute a "virtual public space," a kind of provisional pocket utopia and a possible model for future modes of sociality (103), but even when it fails—as Schwerner's reading did that night at Rutgers—it sheds valuable light on poetry's claims and limitations as a public discourse.

Poetry readings deserve to be taken this seriously, in Middleton's view, because they form a not inconsiderable part of what he calls the "long biography of the poem," its "history of responses, uses, memories, expectations, and other actions (much more heterogeneous than literary criticism usually acknowledges) [that] constitutes the only unity the poem has" (3). Far from being merely ornamental or, worse, merely a strategy of marketing and self-promotion, the public performance of poetry "extend[s], complicate[s], and sometimes transform[s]" the meaning of the poem (28). In memorably successful performances, such as Ginsberg's of "Howl" in 1955, the "semantic repertoire of the written text" is extended in a number of...