Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Speed of Sound

Philip Metres and I have been talking through his blog about Tom Raworth and his famous reading speed. Metres mentions Raworth’s lightning pace as a “counterpoint” to the lines as they appear on the page, and cites “Listen Up,” a satiric poem in end-rhymed couplets, to make a comparison with Tony Harrison’s “working class political aesthetic” and, inevitably, hip hop.

But what got me thinking about the exchange with Metres was how much meaning we were willing to squeeze out of Raworth’s speed without any reference to his poems at all. If you didn’t know the lines were often Creeley-skinny in print, or he didn’t happen to be reading in rhymed couplets, his delivery alone invites interpretations, independently of any of the formal features of his work, that say a lot about the hopes and assumptions many of us bring to contemporary poetry.

I don’t really believe you can “read” Raworth’s speed by itself, and the possibilities below all show signs of knowing more about Raworth than just his reading style—that he’s British, for instance, or that a “working class political aesthetic” might be relevant. But I think our tendency to mask this essential contextual knowledge in a discussion of a “poetics of speed”—our need to find a poetics in even a manner of reading—reveals something crucial, or at least symptomatic, about the state of the art, and the pressure we put on it to effect change.

Here are a few readings Metres and I turned up. Others? And any explanations for why we’re doing this at all?
+ Raworth’s speed as a way to “[destroy] the polite conventions of the traditional poetry reading.”

+ Speedy delivery as a means for pushing words closer to “the status of pure signifiers, disconnected from any system of meaning but the sounds themselves.”

+ Reading fast as a Wallace Stevens-like “‘pushing back’ against the pressure of reality.”

+ Quick reading of short lines as Raworth’s reaction to Creeley’s (mis)interpretation William Carlos Williams, who understood line breaks as a notation of speed.

+ Raworth’s rapid-fire delivery as a strategy for signaling urgency prior to any grasp of the poems’ content. The comparison here might be with those government-mandated side effects warnings at the end of TV drug ads, which alert you to their importance by being read so fast that you can’t catch all the details. Raworth’s speed could be a way of asking us to pay attention to his language with the same kind of out-of-focus focus we bring to the “small print.” (Poetry as the “small print” at the bottom of everyday language use?)

+ Raworth’s pace as a response to the “increased time/space compression” of late capitalism, “where the subject is increasingly subject to the hurtling of postmodern life.”

This was a biggie, and opened up a few different readings:

1) As an act of resistance—comparable to the speed of hardcore punk—against our precarious subject position in “the hurtling of postmodern life.”

2) As a celebration of that hurtling …

3) … or a value-neutral reflection of it. (Raworth himself inclines this way in an email to Metres—or, really, slips out of the noose of this reading altogether—when he writes: “I never thought of it as a style: simply the way I read what I've written, if aloud—and now I've realised, over the years, that people think I read quickly, it would seem totally false to deliberately slow down.”)

4) As a parody of the “fast-moving, high-pressure, get-it-done yesterday world” reflected in popular media, like the fast-talking FedEx ads of John Moschitta.

5) Since the FedEx ad itself parodies the “increased/time space compression” of late capitalism, in order to sell you a service to relieve it, Raworth’s Moschitta-like speed could be read as a capitulation to the rhythm of everyday work and social life, exaggerating its qualities for humorous effect.

+ Raworth’s speed as a way of delaying listeners from identifying his social class via accent, so as to focus attention on the poetry rather than the class position of the poet. This is an air ball, I think (it’s mine). I’m not sure reading fast blurs anyone’s accent; I can’t think of an instance where reading faster obscures accents in U.S. speech.

+ Raworth’s speed (Metres’s counterpunch) as a way of asserting his “pride in being working class,” and reminding the (presumably non-working class) listener that “not only will you not understand me because of my accent, I will read in such a way that you will never be able to ‘understand.’”
That’s it so far. Condolences to Raworth for the loss of Vinnie.


Chris said...

(This is a very good line of inquiry.)

Philip Metres said...

I am not sure that I don't sound like a jackass! (How's that for a poem title?). Another option: Mr. Raworth is a speed-freak. He prefers greenies. That also allows him to hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball.

Slightly more seriously: at least two people I spoke with, who'd heard Raworth read before, said that they remembered him as reading faster. Was that true? Has he slowed down? Or does the initial effect pronounce itself as crazy speed, and, once expected, doesn't seem quite as fast? As, when reading flarf, once one expects to be offended, one isn't quite so offended the second time.

rodney k said...

Hi Philip,

Not at all!

I've also heard that Raworth seemed to read a little slower at Orono than he has in the past. I remember you thinking about that oscillation between "fast" Raworth and "sort of fast" Raworth in your original post.

Hi Chris,

Canada has been good for your blog, bad for Portland. :(

Anonymous said...

Before I even listened to any of the sound files of Mr. Raworth's readings and only read your post, Rodney and Philip's, I thought to myself "auctioneer speed?"

I had not seen the Fed Ex ads, as I don't have a TV.

When I listened to him reading "Listen Up," I was reminded of Dr. Seuss stories, especially with the rhyming couplets.

I find the faster readings refreshing. Anything different than the usual poet drone. I've always hated that stereotypical "poet reading rhythm" stilted, affected and obnoxious. (I used to think to myself, "Is there a special class poets take to learn how to read this way?") My attention quickly begins to drift when I hear that kind of cliched "poet" monotone, with the pauses at all the "proper" places. No wonder most non-poets find poetry readings boring.

DUSIE said...

Hi, I am suprised no one has mentioned how he incorporates music, or more precisely a wind-up music box into his performances. The last time I saw him perform (cambridge) I remember thinking that he utilized the music-box as a sort of word generator. Not sure, but it really seemed like he wrote with or at least in mind to the speed of the wind-up pace...he also used a different one in DC when he read a few years back. His volume from a couple years back is behemoth, like a brick of urgency and his fast pace for me is incorporates many things, his charisma, going against that horrible monotone voice more prevelant in most of his younger years, also in ways of drawing in the audience (again here the music box comes into play). He is really one of the most personable people I have ever met in the poetry world, charming, sweet, funny &cool.

rodney k said...

Hi Susana,

I've seen the music box too, and remember the excitement as he fed a paper with a poem punched into it, player piano-style, through the machine. I'd thought of that as separate from his reading pace though until your post.

DUSIE said...

O and in case it wasn't clear, I was in no way referring to Tom as EVER having or reading in a monotone voice... the whole working class urgency of the fast pace I never considered, he studied at Cambridge, didn't he? I guess I live under a parasol of assumptions, I realize that people from all walks of life go to Uni and it is another sign of hi brilliance to write one's way out of such a class, but an even more brilliant one who does not abandon their past, etc but fosters a rekindling of it in the continuance of writing (as some point out at least of the very working class aesthetic) either way, it works for me and is fantastic.

rodney k said...

Hi Susana,

I'm not clear on Raworth's class identity either--funny how much easier those terms are to throw around with Brits than with us (U.S.).

I've met Brits with plummy Received Pronunciation accents who are also reluctant to be class-identified by the way the sound when they speak. So was figuring the desire for "masking," if the idea holds at all, could go either way.