Sunday, September 02, 2007

On the Possiblity of Stand-up Poetry

This idea has been suggested before, with various degrees of seriousness. Mairead Byrne's proposal (available as a PDF file at UbuWeb) was, perhaps, prefigured by T. S. Eliot in his essay on "The Possiblity of a Poetic Drama":

The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make. For every person who is likely to consider it seriously there are a dozen toymakers who would leap to tickle æsthetic society into one more quiver and giggle of art debauch. Very few treat art seriously. There are those who treat it solemnly, and will continue to write poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare; and there are others who treat it as a joke.

What I want to suggest here is that the "stand-up poet" as the implicit author/performer is one way of understanding the yaw angle of a given poem. Another is the "poetry anchor", i.e., the poem read off a teleprompter as part of newscast. In either case, "our problem should be to take a form of [non-poetry], and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art." (Something I've long been arguing is the central contribution of flarf.) The whole idea here is to imagine the poem being presented in a context not defined by the institutions of poetry, but, so to speak, "in public". Poetry read in a tough room, if you will.

This line of thinking has also been sending me back to Tony Tost's "Disarm the Settlers". His "mongrel" school of poetry (somewhere between mainstream and experimental) was an attempt to imagine how experimental work could successfully transform (even revolutionize) the public face of poetry. We need to go a step further, I think, and ask if there is any way to introduce poetry to the public directly (not just to the poetry-reading public). Any attempt to imagine this (with or without irony) is an approach to the "yaw" of a poem. I'm not saying it would ever "work" (i.e., that the shows would sell out); I'm saying that "the possibility" of reading a poem as stand-up indicates the "yaw" of the poem.

There are many styles of stand-up, of course. Chris Rock (Byrne's example) is only a recent example. Obviously we need to consider also Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, George Carlin and Steven Wright. All of them had audiences that arguably "wanted entertainment of a crude sort" but would stand a good deal of, not poetry perhaps, but at least something like thoughtful "content". (I'm willing to give ground on this in particular cases.)

While I had been thinking about this idea for some time already, it seemed especially relevant when I reached the last line of Ben Lerner's "Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan". Here the "easy" stand-up reading would be the "flat affected tone" of, say, Steven Wright. But there are different ways of performing these "twenty-one bits for Ronald Reagan".

More later.

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