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Oral Tradition 21.1 (2006) 119-147

Elaborate Versionings:
Characteristics of Emergent Performance in Three Print/Oral/Aural Poets
Kenneth Sherwood
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
[*eCompanion at 1 ]

From Page to Performance

The significant influence of oral literature, song, and vernacular speech forms on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature is generally recognized by scholars, teachers, and editors. The authoritative, four-volume American Poetry series published by the Library of America serves as an index of this consensus, with sections on anonymous ballads, blues lyrics, popular song, Native American poetry (song and narrative), folk songs, and spirituals. 2 These and other popular teaching anthologies that represent poems from oral contexts effectively subsume the poems within an economy in which they are appreciated, taught, and analyzed as though they were originally written, literary texts—according minimal attention to the mechanisms of transposition (from performance to print). 3 [End Page 119]

Given the general lack of appreciation, within literary criticism, of the oral/textual dynamics relevant to orally produced poetries, it should come as no surprise that little attention has been paid to the analysis of the oral delivery of poems composed on paper. Should a "poetry reading" be classified as a dramatic reading, a recitation, or a performance? Can the oral delivery of a written poem constitute a significant or primary means of publication and reception? These have not often seemed like fundamental questions or meaningful distinctions for literary criticism.

The very phrase "poetry reading" shows how criticism marginalizes performance, tending to see it as subsidiary, a secondary mode of presentation. 4 The reluctance of literary criticism to conceive of orality as a medium for modern poetry is at least partly a reflection of the success, over a half-century ago, of New Criticism in casting a focus upon the autonomous text. Scholars of oral poetry have derived useful interpretive guidance from focussing on "performance as the enabling event" (Foley 1995:27), with a consequent emphasis on the "radical integration, or situatedness, of verbal art in cultural context" (ibid.:30); New Criticism moved literary study in the opposite direction: towards an approach to analysis as an interaction between reader and text, with a minimization of cultural, intertextual, or authorial context. 5

This essay considers the implications of situating literate, postmodern poetry in a performance context. Using recordings/transcriptions of "poetry readings" by Amiri Baraka, Kamau Brathwaite, and Cecilia Vicuña, its aims are: 1) to demonstrate that each event constitutes an emergent performance; 2) to explore how the performativity draws upon classically oral dynamics 6 ; [End Page 120] and 3) to show how the emergent qualities of the performances are achieved through the specific means of "elaboration" and "versioning." By means of elaboration and versioning, these poems break through into performativity; literary criticism cannot be content to receive them as conventional texts but must consider their emergent dimensions.

Looking at print poetry within a performance context implicitly creates a friction with the lingering, teleological narrative (of the passage from orality to literacy), but it explicitly challenges the habitual privileging of the written text in literary studies. Scholars of both written and oral traditional literature have often operated, perhaps under the guidance of the paradigms of their fields, as if boundary questions belonged properly to the other's domain. The literary critic who ventures into the terrain of oral tradition and orality frequently finds such exploration discouraged. Beginning with a classic text in the scholarship, she or he finds Albert Lord claiming that "once the oral technique is lost, it is never regained" (1960: 129). Reflective as it may be of the situation of the oral epic in Yugoslavia, the extrapolation to oral art more generally serves as a rebuff to the literary critic. Committed to a strict definition of oral poetry—centered on the use of formula and composition-in-performance (the necessity for which, he quite rightly observes, is obviated by literate technologies)—Lord holds that there can be no transitional texts, because literacy impels oral composition in the...


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