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How to Read a Reading of a Written Poem

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 20, Number 1, March 2005
pp. 7-34 | 10.1353/ort.2005.0015

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Oral Tradition 20.1 (2005) 7-34

Peter Middleton

University of Southampton

Poetry readings have become a standard element in the practice of poetry in the English-speaking world over the past fifty years, yet their significance as anything more than entertainment remains little understood. Literary studies has lagged behind another field that has made significant steps in the study of poetry performance—oral poetics. My title alludes to John Miles Foley's recent textbook (2002) on the study of oral poetry, which offers both a comprehensive account of different theories of oral poetry and an extended introduction to his own contribution to the study of the units of composition. Foley's work, like that of other ethnographers of oral poetry, has important implications for the study of the relation between any written poetry and its performance, even among the most literate, print-based cultures.

My own research into the contemporary Anglophone poetry reading in which a written, often printed, text is read aloud, began with a puzzle: the seeming dissonance between the opportunities for understanding a poem when read silently and the fleeting impressions presented by an oral performance of the same text. Poetry readings can seem explicable if one thinks of them as entertainment, or part of the celebrity system, or as performances of a verbal score that like most musical scores can only be appreciated properly once converted by instruments and voices into sonic form. All of these variations do take place and important poetry has emerged in each area. Why then is it that such poetry is in the minority, and that the main body of contemporary poetry is also regularly performed by its authors and yet would seem to require the kind of thoughtful, prolonged attention that only silent reading of a printed text can supply?

This question turns out to go much deeper than it would appear. It requires an almost complete rethinking of what we understand as the reading of literary texts in contemporary Western culture. The study of performance challenges the idea that reading a book is a practice that can be conceptualized as a solitary and autonomous practice, despite the apparent isolation of the silent reader. Although the commonsense image of reading treats it as a cognitive activity taking place in a mental realm that only exists within one subject, just as dreams, thoughts, and memories also occur there, the analysis of oral performance of texts contributes to the hypothesis that literary reading is a collective activity of which the singular encounter with a printed text, and a mind turned inward, is only a small part of a complex network. This collectivity constantly finds different means of representing itself through institutions and rituals: performances in the simple sense, where one or more persons stand in front of an audience, as well as more cutting-edge rituals that are likely to disguise the ritual and performative elements with anything from politics to education, mass media formats, and internet protocols. Orality remains much more important for all forms of modern literature than literary theory and criticism assume.

A contemporary Western poetry reading may seem far from research into texts and readers from earlier periods of history and far from the significance of aesthetically rich language performances in other cultures. There are several reasons, however, why we should not assume that this is the case. One baseline for literary and ethnographic theory is an image of Western literature whose outlines have been shaped by an academic culture of reading largely blind to the degree to which orality and performance remain part of literature today. A revision of the standard picture of texts as objects ready for interpretation is badly needed in spite of the work of historians and theorists of reception into the formation of reception communities and the vicissitudes of reader-response. A second reason is that those few writers, mostly poets, who have investigated the interdependence of writing and orality, have produced bodies of literary work that could, if translated into the more familiar modes of academic conceptualizing, be of considerable value. A third reason is that the textual memory produced by literary texts is spread across networks whose needs are neither...



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