Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Wallace Stevens Reading "The Snow Man" (Commonplace Book)

[I found this on Stephen Frug's blog, but I wanted to post it myself and make a brief comment.]

Here is one of my indispensable poets reading one of his indispensable poems -- on youtube no less. The video is at best pointless and at worst distracting and painfully literal, so look away from the screen, or close your eyes, and just listen. It is an interesting experience, but not as good as reading the poem yourself, I think.

There is an assumption that there is something valuable in hearing poets read their own work. I disagree, at least as far as most of the poets I have heard read. I think, generally, poets are terrible readers of their own poems. (Ashbery is an exception here -- T.S. Eliot is not). This is not as surprising as it sounds, as we would not, for example, expect a screenwriter who was not also an actor to do a very good job reading parts of his own script. I recommend we treat poetry the same way. Let's find actors to read these things aloud -- college actors for instance -- and let the poets get back to doing what they do best: writing poetry.

[How embarrassing is it that I now embed youtube clips because I am excited to have "cracked the technology" of embedding? I am such a Luddite.]

10 comments:

Roger said...

one of my favorite poems...thanks.

Stephen said...

Geoff,

Thanks for the shout out! (Although if you wanted to make that a link -- Stephen Frug's blog -- I'd appreciate it. :>)

As far as the poets reading their own poems go... I disagree, I think. It's not that I think a poet's reading their own work in any way replaces the text (what would that even mean?) or that it obviates any need for any other interpretation. But it can (in some cases) help us understand what the poet meant -- the particular shading or emphasis given to lines will color our interpretation of them.

(And yeah, I know, "the author's dead": well, I'm not saying that the poet's meaning is dispositive: a poem can certainly mean things different from (even counter to) what the meant it to. But I think it's good to know about, and can influence readings that are -- ultimately -- up to us.)

I simply don't think the screenwriting analogy holds up: screenwriters (who aren't actors, i.e. most of them) are, deliberately, writing for other voices -- even necessarily writing for other voices, given that scripts are for multiple people. Poems are written as texts -- not necessarily for the poet's voice, but not necessarily for others, either. For that matter, given how central readings are to the poet's craft and culture, you might even argue that they are to some degree written for their own voices.

Here's an alternate analogy: music. Consider a rock musician who sings their own songs. That doesn't mean that another artist won't come along and cover them better than the original artist did: but surely the original is worth hearing, and remembering? Or, perhaps even better, classical music: a composer might not be the most talented pianist, and another pianist might do a better version of a piano work. But surely the composer's playing would be of interest -- and interpretive interest?

One final variable to consider here: historical period. My wife and I got (as a wedding gift) a wonderful 4-cd set of poets reading their own work, from Walt Whitman (!) through contemporary poets like Rita Dove. It's wonderful to listen too. But most of the older poets -- all of the first cd, if I remember correctly -- read in a very stilted, stylized way that sounds off -- at least to my ears. Whereas later poets read much more naturally and fluently. I think it's a culture shift: what's considered to be a good reading changed. (I bet Eliot was in the old style, Ashbery in the new...) So think about when the poets you've heard read.

(Personally, though, I really liked that Wallace Stevens reading.)

SF

Stephen said...

PS: Idea for a future post: I'd love a list of your indispensable poets sometime. It doesn't have to be a Definitive All Time Klock Cannon -- just a "top ten of the moment" sort of thing, like you did with comics.

(Even better: point to favorite works by the poets, so we can go check 'em out.)

SF

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen

You always make these comments where you look like you are disagreeing with me and it takes me 15 minutes of trying to respond to you to realize you don't. You conclude your first four paragraphs of argument with this: "a composer might not be the most talented pianist, and another pianist might do a better version of a piano work. But surely the composer's playing would be of interest -- and interpretive interest?" We agree. I totally said it was interesting, and I totally said someone else could do it a lot better.

You are dead right about that culture shift. But I am still allowed to not like the style of reading back then, as I am allowed to think that "flock of seagulls hair" is dumb. I realize there is a context, but a context will not necessarily keep me from judgement. I can judge the whole context as annoying.

What do you like about the Stevens reading?

I could do posts on great poems, but I do not think posts on poems are at all popular. I feel like I am alienating the hell out of everyone when I post on poetry. I will think about it. Maybe commonplace book entries for a while could be a ten best poems thing.

Stephen said...

You always make these comments where you look like you are disagreeing with me and it takes me 15 minutes of trying to respond to you to realize you don't.

Well, sorry about that. But in this case I don't think it's my fault. Here's what you wrote in your comment:

You conclude your first four paragraphs of argument with this: "a composer might not be the most talented pianist, and another pianist might do a better version of a piano work. But surely the composer's playing would be of interest -- and interpretive interest?" We agree. I totally said it was interesting, and I totally said someone else could do it a lot better.

But here's what you wrote in your post:

There is an assumption that there is something valuable in hearing poets read their own work. I disagree, at least as far as most of the poets I have heard read. I think, generally, poets are terrible readers of their own poems. (Ashbery is an exception here -- T.S. Eliot is not). This is not as surprising as it sounds, as we would not, for example, expect a screenwriter who was not also an actor to do a very good job reading parts of his own script. I recommend we treat poetry the same way. Let's find actors to read these things aloud -- college actors for instance -- and let the poets get back to doing what they do best: writing poetry.

It may be that you think it's interesting -- in which case, yes, we agree -- but I don't think that that's a plausible inference from "there is something valuable in hearing poets read their own work. I disagree".

Anyway, so I don't think it's my fault here -- not this time, anyway.

You are dead right about that culture shift. But I am still allowed to not like the style of reading back then, as I am allowed to think that "flock of seagulls hair" is dumb. I realize there is a context, but a context will not necessarily keep me from judgement. I can judge the whole context as annoying.

Oh, completely. I just wasn't sure if you (or other readers) knew the context here. I agree with you that that cultural style doesn't work, broadly speaking.

But I think that this implies a different conclusion: not that, "poets reading their own work are flawed", but that "a past style of poets readings was flawed, and therefore poets' readings from that era are unlikely to be good".

What do you like about the Stevens reading?

I think his voicing gives life to the poem, and says some interesting things about how he was hearing it. -- Sorry that's not very specific. I've loved the poem for years, but I still got a lot out of his reading it. I'm just not sure I can say why.

I could do posts on great poems, but I do not think posts on poems are at all popular. I feel like I am alienating the hell out of everyone when I post on poetry. I will think about it. Maybe commonplace book entries for a while could be a ten best poems thing.

Well, you know best. I was thinking of a one-time post -- just a list. Shouldn't alienate too many people if it's a one-time thing. And I, at least, am quite curious...

SF

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: Ahh, crap. You are right. Sorry. I was thinking of this quote from the post as far as us agreeing: "It is an interesting experience, but not as good as reading the poem yourself, I think." I should have written "something very valuable" in the post instead of "something valuable" My bad.

I was also thinking I was wrong to dismiss the whole era's style of reading. It reminds me of my students' habit of not liking black and white movies just because they are in black and white.

Not my best day.

I will see what I can do with a best poetry list.

neilshyminsky said...

A couple favorite poets of mine, neither of which (for reasons that will become rather obvious, i hope) have been outdone in the reading of their own stuff.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uVugkG7CBc&mode=related&search=
http://ubu.artmob.ca/sound/nichol_bp/Nichol-bp_Sound-Poems_02-pome.mp3

Mikey said...

Coming from another angle:

It depends on what you mean by poet. Obviously it's problematic to generalize but are poets essentially writers? Is that what they do best? Is a poem best served as something written (by a writer for a reader)? Read (by a reader)? Read out (by / to a reader)? Or heard (by an audience)? Questions of public and private.

Slam poet? Performance? For some, saying "I'm a poet" means not only do they write but they also perform their own work and each aspect is as essential as the other. (We may be talking at cross purposes about 'poetry' - admittedly it's been ages since I looked at/encountered poetry in an academic setting/'literary' tradition. It's something I'd like to get back into when I get the time).

Jason Powell said...

I enjoy the poetry posts, although I rarely feel qualified to comment on them. I'm not so good with interpretation. Generally I just like clever rhymes 'n' stuff... So it's fun to read someone who's obviously very adept at decoding these things. (I liked the one you did a while back about the guy picking up leaves and saying "I'm a tree"...)

But hey, on the subject of authors reading their own work -- I personally can't stand the movie "A Christmas Story," specifically because of the narration (which is by the original author of the short stories on which the movie is based). It's such a grindingly forced and strained attempt to sell the text ... argh. Painful.

Rani said...

Post and comments are interesting here.