Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tom Raworth and the Poetics of Speed

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:

"Listen Up"

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?


rodney k said...

Hi Philip,

I don’t quite follow the argument here. If speed (“increased time/space compression”) emerges from the conditions of late capitalism, so much so that John Moschitta and Minor Threat might be seen as equivalent instances of it, what is it that makes Raworth’s pace in and of itself a “pushing back against” its pressure? Couldn’t it be read just as easily as a capitulation to it? Without the context provided by the poems themselves, I don’t see exactly how Raworth’s speed alone is an act of punk resistance to consumer capitalism, or—veering rightward—a Stevens-like embrace of salvific sound. It was curious to see Raworth himself backing off from some of these claims, but I wanted to understand better yours.

Philip Metres said...


Even your criticism sounds flarfist! That's the question of flarf as well, in a sense--is the replication of the demotic language a "pushing back" against it, or a capitulation to it, some oscillation between these poles of resistance/capitulation, or a fourth thing, as yet undetermined. I would argue that punk's (hardcore's) speed was always partly hormonally induced, but it also was an art/cultural attempt to "keep up" (not with the Joneses, per se) by one's own means, with one's own language, against the relentlessness of the mainstream. Art as homeopathic inoculation? Your thoughts?

rodney k said...

Hi Philip,

I’m excited by the extra possibilities your comment opens up, just as I was excited most in your original post by the comparison with the fast-talking ‘80s pitch man. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to determine exactly what Raworth’s speed-reading is meant to be doing, at least without reference to the content and context of his poetry, that it’s compelling. Once it’s neatly boxed into a punky gesture of resistance or subversion, it sort of loses (for me, at least) its power to subvert. Kind of like, well … punk rock.

Your comparison of Raworth to John Moschitta brought to mind those legal warnings you get for drugs or special sales offers at the end of radio ads. You know, the ones Congress mandates they do, where they have to rattle off side effects or all the places where the contest isn’t valid with a velocity that’s meant to get you to neglect the words. A delivery so weird and inconsistent with what the ad’s led you to expect so far that you instantly prick up your ears.

Philip Metres said...


This conversation has opened up for me a kind of critical impasse that I find unsettling, even terrifying. After all, I spent many years writing BEHIND THE LINES and thinking about poetry and resistance, the poetics of resistance.... A recent conversation with Kasey at Orono--in which he essentially blew up the idea of resistance as even appropriate (given the conditions of absorption and cooptation). I was left feeling terribly sad. Was I being naive about my articulations of an art of resistance? Was Kasey being too cynical? Both? Neither? I haven't forgotten that conversation, which probably led to my snide remark about "thinking critically like a flarfist." So there's a couple layers of perturbation and roil that I'm still thinking about.

First, if I agree with Kasey, then what are the consequences? If I abandon the theorization of resistance, is there anything to replace it, other than capitulation? In other words, am I back to the Foucault dilemma--if power is indeed inexorable, unresistable, there might be some other way of conceiving domination but that doesn't change anything. So, to make a huge leap, does that mean that the Flarf project excludes political change as even possible? Now I know Flarf poetry has a very post-Language relationship to the grandiose claims about what it's trying to do--which seems honest and thoughtful to me--but still...

Second, in your phrasing, "Once it’s neatly boxed into a punky gesture of resistance or subversion, it sort of loses (for me, at least) its power to subvert. Kind of like, well … punk rock." I sense that once something is named as resistance it's no longer really resistance or it's no longer really interesting art. What might the critic's role be, then? Simply to avoid the topic altogether?

So those are two thoughts that probably deserve a whole blog posting or even an essay. If you have further thoughts, or want to invite further brethren or sistren to join this conversation, we might pitch it to JACKET, or God help us, POETRY MAGAZINE.

rodney k said...

Hi Philip,

For my own part, I don’t think resistance is futile, though I’m not sure poetry is always its best means. Unless you think of reading and writing poetry itself as a kind of “pushing against” the mainstream, but if resistance gets defined that broadly, I don’t see much difference between poetry and, say, quilting or craft brewing, a kind of precious retreat into a subculture that sees itself as a superior alternative to the machine & office age.

It seems to me that this is a steady temptation for poetry, to become the parking lot for well-intentioned ideals we don’t see realized to the extent that we’d like in society at large. Once resistance itself becomes one of those ideals—once just reading poems really fast can evoke David Harvey and hardcore punk—I wonder if we’re shading into a culture of consolation, where the only ones left listening are the choir.

Not to diss choirs, which are great for certain kinds of work. Sometimes, for instance, they sing.

I don’t know the details of your conversation with Kasey, and I haven’t had the chance to read your book, so apologies in advance if this doesn’t quite respond to your comment. I’ve always kind of wondered if Raworth’s quick-talk is partly a strategy for dealing with class accents. If you read fast, and the sounds sort of blur, do the toffs have a harder time figuring out where you belong?

Philip Metres said...

Hey Rodney,

Thanks for your comments!

Resistance is fertile.

As for poetry not being the best means of resistance--I couldn't agree more. And certainly the gestures of rebellion in poetry have often been lame ones, choir-preaching, etc.

The means of resistance. I'm coming from the idea that Rilke articulated that poetry should be after "the whole of life"--in which case, why should anything be omitted? In "Behind the Lines," I was particularly interested in tracking the relationships between poets and the peace movement; when poets get involved in such activities (whether you articulate them as dissent, activism, or resistance), they have frequently wanted to bring poetry to bear on such work, and vice versa.

Which is why, though I like a bunch of the poems of Stan Apps' INFO RATION (I owe him a book!), I find his poem "Forget Political Poetry" to be as smug and self-congratulatory as the poetic pronouncements that what one is doing is resisting by writing poetry.

In the back of my mind, when writing, I am aware of the various privileges that I've been afforded--not simply by my upbringing--but by the forms of capitalism and imperial power, and how imbricated I am in that network of power. Perhaps nothing that I do is not marked by that power. Even now, as I write this, it is a paralyzing thought ("resistance is futile!" because "why bite the hand that is feeding you 'resistance is futile' and the platform to say it").

Finally, your comment about accent and Tom Raworth rang another bell--as I was listening to Billy Bragg the other day. Isn't there a lot more pride in England in being working class than in the States?Rather than a shield against being outed as working class, it could also be read as the opposite--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."

rodney k said...

Hi Philip,

Thanks for your generous response--more heart than anyone has a right to expect in a comment box!

Would you mind if I brought up some of these different ways of understanding Raworth's speed as a post on my blog? I'd like to chalk out some of what we've mentioned, just to get them straight in my own mind, and see what others add.

Philip Metres said...


go for it. thanks for your feedback. It's been stimulating. I hope, in the process, I haven't just re-trenched back to my old arguments--many questions re-opened...

Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Oh hi Philip,

I think you might be misreading "Forget Political Poetry"--though of course it's fine for you to react to it however--but I mean the title to be conditioned by these lines:

Experiences that we forget change us
In ways that are fully responsible for our behavior
And which can never be proven or disproven.
Political poetry is wily like that.

I hope that helps to clerify the poem's intent. . .