- American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop
Poetry performance, performance poetry: these two phrases describe different phenomena yet the same sense of distinction and hierarchy. Either a text recirculates as performance or a performance results in the creation of a text, but the sense of priority and sequence in each case is clear. Recently, though, a growing number of scholars – specialists in literature and performance alike – have been trying to imagine more entangled relationships between the two. For instance, poet and PennSound editor Charles Bernstein has been working since the 1990s “to integrate the modern history of poetry into a more general history of performance art” (Bernstein 5); and Carrie Noland, a poetry critic who has inclined more and more toward dance studies, has been creating a provocative hybrid of those two fields. Meanwhile, in a recent special issue of PMLA, performance studies scholars Joseph Roach and Peggy Phelan each call for performance studies to return from its repertoire of performance to the deep archive of literature – and for both, this is presumptively an archive of poetry. This is not the old, worn-out gesture – “Homer was a performance poet, too!” – but rather a serious and urgent reconsideration of literature’s place among the fine and performing arts
At its best, Tyler Hoffman’s American Poetry in Performance likewise scrambles the formal and disciplinary distinctions we draw between poetry and performance. Rather than focus exclusively on how poetry has been performed or on how it might be scripted for performance, Hoffman wants to show us something subtler. “Performance on the page,” he argues, “seeks to authenticate performance off the page, and vice versa” (4). Poetry and performance, in other words, are neither distinct practices nor discrete phases within a single practice. They overlap and interact; they change each other and are changed; they tangle (or tango) together.
This mutual “authentication” of print by performance and of performance by print isn’t merely a question of medium or form; it’s also crucial, Hoffman insists, to “the civics of American performance poetry” (4). After all, many of the American poets who have gravitated most toward public performance – and who have worried most over how print and other [End Page 579] reproductive technologies mediate their relationships to their publics – share some of the same reasons for doing so: progressive politics, populist leanings, and a faith in poetry’s world-making (or at least community-raising) powers.
After a brief introduction along these lines, the book begins with a chapter on Walt Whitman, whose zeal for performance, however great, was outweighed by his imagination for what Hoffman calls, at various points throughout the book, “fictions of performance” (5). (This is Hoffman’s term for all the ways in which a poetic theory or a printed poem can invoke the representational logic of performance, even when no actual performance takes place.) In particular, he argues that Whitman’s poetry in general, and Leaves of Grass, in particular, “promotes the fiction of its own liveness” (20) – a persuasive extension of Philip Auslander’s arguments about liveness and mediatization backwards into a print-dominated age.
The second chapter, a bid to restore the oft-elided Vachel Lindsay to our histories of poetry and performance, provides a more brazenly theatrical alternative to Whitman’s closeted fictions of performance. “Whitman,” Lindsay once crowed, “only fancied the crowd. I have met them face to face” (qtd. on 55). This chapter skews more toward biography than argument, but it does paint a remarkable portrait of the flamboyant figure of Lindsay and his weirdly chauvinist brand of poetry. With manic verse and bravura performance, Lindsay succeeded in turning poetry into what he called a “higher Vaudeville”; that is, a popular literary spectacle (61). In telling this story, Hoffman, thankfully, does not shy away from those faults that have lately kept Lindsay on the outskirts of the canon. Lindsay’s theatrical bluster, his blundering co-opting of black and Native voices, and his failed political vision are treated here not only...