I got to see the poet Tom Raworth read in Orono as part of the National Poetry Foundation Conference on "Poetry and the 1970s," and he was a revelation. Raworth read his poems at such a breakneck clip, without breaks or patter between them, that it destroyed the polite conventions of the traditional poetry reading.
In a way, Raworth's performance recalled for me other instances of speedtalk--the famous pitchman from the 1980s John Moschitta--
--and the relentless hardcore of Minor Threat--
Though it's strange to place Moschitta and Minor Threat side by side--given that one is an ad man and the other is a band that situated itself as an underground anti-capitalist scourge--both emerge from the conditions of late capitalism, the increased time/space compression articulated so well by David Harvey, where the subject is increasingly subject to the hurtling of postmodern life.
In his reading style, Raworth likewise has devised not only a distinct counterpoint to the mostly-vertically slim poems as they appear on the page, but also a response to the cultural conditions of speed. In his own way, Raworth is performing that "pushing back" against the pressure of reality that Wallace Stevens in his essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" saw as the fundamental work of poetry.
While Robert Creeley, one of Raworth's influences, often would read poems like "I Know a Man" with a kind of slowness that made each line break function as a kind of painful silence, as if they were stunned words of lovers at an impasse, Raworth speeds down the page--as if he imagined that letting up might allow his lover to leave. (In this way, just as Creeley was said to have "misread" William Carlos Williams' notion of the linebreak, Raworth "misreads" Creeley's linebreaks back to Williams' sense of the linebreak as an increase of speed).
At the Orono conference, Raworth read so headlong that, when he finished the main portion, the audience applause resembled one after a bravura musical performance--the words themselves had neared the status of pure signifiers, disconnected from any system of meaning but the sounds themselves. As Stevens says,
Those of us who may have been thinking of the path of poetry, those who understand that words are thoughts and not only our own thoughts but the thoughts of men and women ignorant of what it is they are thinking, must be conscious of this: that, above everything else, poetry is words; and that words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds.
For Stevens, it is the sounds of words themselves, in the end, that can save us. That's the grandiosity of modernism talking, perhaps, but it's also someone who believes that art has a role to play beyond being consumed, or merely understood.
When I asked Raworth about his "reading style," in pure punk fashion, he rejected the notion that it was anything like a style:
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. But I don't see mine as any sort of definitive reading... I'm quite happy if others read my writing slower, or differently (which has happened many times... a now-dead friend in Italy, Corrado Costa, used to insist on reading the same piece after me, but much slower.... fine. My assumption is that if I'm asked to read, I should read as I want to.... the texts, after all, are available for anyone thinking they've missed something.(from an email exchange July 2008)
Indeed, at other readings available online, I've discovered that Raworth varies his tempo by situation and poem. You can hear him read, for example, this diatribe against the Iraq War at a relatively midtempo pace:
by TOM RAWORTH
Why should we listen to Hans Blix
and all those other foreign pricks:
the faggot French who swallow snails
and kiss the cheeks of other males:
the Germans with their Nazi past
and leather pants and cars that last
longer than ours: the ungrateful Chinks
we let make all our clothes; those finks
should back us in whatever task--
we shouldn't even have to ask:
and as for creepy munchkin Putin...
a slimy asshole-- no disputing!?
We saved those Russians from the reds--
they owe support. Those wimpish heads
of tiny states without the power
to have a radio in the shower
should fall in line behind George Bush
and join with him and Blair to push
the sword of truth through Saddam's guts
(no need for any ifs or buts)
we'll even do it without the backing
of UN cowards and their quacking--
remember how we thrashed the Nips
and fried them like potato chips?
God's on our side, he's white and Yankee
he'd drop the bombs, he'd drive a tank: we
know he's stronger than their Allah
as is our righteousness and valor!
We'll clip Mohammed's ears and pecker
And then move on to napalm Mecca.
For me, this poem most reminds me of the work of another British poet, Tony Harrison, whose working class political aesthetic relies often on a rhyming that in our culture seems closer to hip hop than to the couplet...
And why is no one moved to move quite like this to a poetry reading? Is the object of the poetry reading to tutor stillness in us?