Monday, May 25, 2009

Disintegrating Poems

A few weeks ago, Helena Nelson sent me a link telling the story of a poetry reading. This, however, was no ordinary reading. The idea is that, without telling the audience the nature of the event, you write a batch of poems over a few months – the very best you can do, nothing dashed off or obviously ephemeral. Once you’ve read them, you tear them all up. No other copies can exist and you have to delete them from your hard drive before performing them. In other words, the performance is a one-off experience, never to be repeated. You can read about it in more detail here.

I’m not sure I could do this. In fact, I’m fairly sure I couldn’t. I could dash off a few competent enough poems, read them and then burn them. No problem. But good stuff – I don’t think so. Good stuff is rare and takes too much time for me to contemplate destroying it. Now I know that’s the point – the very nature of the one-off, never to be repeated performance is its singularity. The audience go home knowing they’ve seen and heard something rare. If it’s good enough, they will feel a sense of privilege. They will remember being there on that night for a long time to come. But shouldn’t any performance be like that? A poem read on one night will be different from the same poem being read by the same poet on another night. Also, I expect some people will go home feeling a sense of loss, even outrage, even if just for one poem, or a few lines they can no longer exactly remember. I guess this kind of event may help us reconsider why poetry is important, especially if we often begin to feel that it isn’t really.

Let’s imagine a similar event, this time with a line-up of excellent poets reading one poem each, which they all then tear up. Memorable, yes. And at least the load is shared. But could I tear up even one really good poem?

Then today I read this at Don Share’s blog, a quote from Virginia Woolf on the active life of an average book (not long) – “Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time?” There would be more space in my house as a result. But I resist this too. The big-sellers which need second editions might not be the best books. My shelves could end up filled with second-division stuff while the great poems disintegrate. ‘Buy a Salt book’, suggests Don’s Jekyll to Virgina Woolf’s Hyde. I think I’d go along with that.


Dave said...

My kneejerk reaction (which is always my favorite) is to say this is a stupid, stupid idea. I've never believed that the public reading is the natural habitat of the poem -- it's something we subject them to from time to time as a necessary PR exercise and a bit of social fun, but reading a fine, layered, thoughtful poem out loud once is like drawing the curtains from a gorgeous painting for 20 seconds and then running it through shredder. You simply can't begin to appreciate it.

This one-reading-then-tear-it-up idea seems to prioritize audience shock & emotion at the process over anything to do with the work itself. It's a melodrama.

Michelle said...

I don't think I could tear up a good poem. Good stuff is rare. Interesting concept.

Ms Baroque said...

You know, that makes me furious. It's a self-destructive and puerile idea.

It's like that stupid artist Michael Landy, who destroyed everything he owned in the old C&AS shop in Oxford St a few years ago. He even destroyed family photographs and his dead father's overcoat. His mother was distraught. But aside from that, I just don't understand where destruction becomes like some trendy form of inside-out creation. It's nihilism and entropy and death. Fuhgeddit.

I mean, this guy who coined tihs idea, then he says it takes about six months to get back into writing because of the emotional toll! I mean, does he have a LIFE? You know, leave the emotional fallout for when something actually HAPPENS to you. Clearly he hasn;t had many experiences yet.

Ms Baroque said...

I mean C&A of course.

Anyway, I just read that comment and maybe I sound a bit over the top. But it is a very annoying idea. Why seek to destroy your hard work? It is a form of self-harm, and the opposite of art.

Anonymous said...

If they were any good you'd remember them....


Rob said...

Thanks for the responses. Yes, I did feel that the shock issue seemed paramount here rather than the art.

As for good work being easily committed to memory, I don't think there's any relationship between quality and memory. Poems written with rhyme and metre are easier to remember than free verse poems, for a start. A bad rhyming poem or rap will be easier to remember than a good unrhymed poem with long lines and plenty of enjambment.

"Gonna write a classic
Gonna write it in an attic
Ooh babe, I'm an addict
for your love."

Can't remember who sang that. I haven't heard it in years, but I can still remember it, perhaps because it's one of the worst lyrics ever written.

Background Artist said...

There's a Tipperary poet in Dublin, Noel Sweeney, who composes everything aurally and orally, who is very much an advocate of Poetry being a living spoken art, not confined within formal borders and boundaries of coffe-shop, pub, bookmart or library.

He cut his teeth in Brixton, falling into the rasta scene as the genuine Irish poet who launched from the dome and generally had this environment as his first Beatle's Hamburg phase of learning how to deliver it Live.

I could listen to him all day long, as he has a flawless style honed over many years of practice.

His take is that Poetry is the root of everything, which Lady Gregory talks about in her mythology books, a hidden root, and route to our inner selves maybe.

His idea of Poetry is purist i suppose, as he is not into putting into books and trying to make anything off it, only to be the best he can, which when he is at his best, is the best in the sense of being totally himself and unbeatable if you like. And his idea is similar in part to the one this blog’s about, in the sense of time and place and one off.

The first time i experienced this sean nos spontaneous happening, was at a pals house one night after a poetry do, and a leaving party for American poet Manny Blackshers, who was just leaving Trinity College after ten years trying to get his phd, and a few thousand words off finishing his thesis on Bunyan, had decided to go back to Alabama after some romantic entanglement.

The poetry and music that night, happened organically and it was only then i grasped what Sweeney was on about, that you cannot force poetry, only live it in the moment of its coming and when it's gone, wait for the next time, and slowly accrue a poetic Faith in it arriving, never worrying when, how or where, just a sort of firm knowing or beleif that, hey, it's gonna come, chill out, don't worry, look here it is now..

And in the wider sense of poetic Reality manifesting itself, occured a week before Manny left, when Quincy Lehr turned up from New York, a recently qualified Doctor of History, here to teach at the place Manny had just left only a few thousand words shy of becoming an American Doctor of History in Ireland - at the Naked Lunch poetry night, immediately identifiable as an American academic, with a big daft grin on his gob, standing in the doorway of Carnival pub on Wexford Street were the gig was, keen to fit in and get ranting with the rest of whoever the clique was.

At that time, it was what was left of Write and Recite, an open mic night that ran for three years from when i first arrived - itself an offshoot and breakaway group who had set up after some row with the previous open mic of the time, Poets Anonymous.

I remember we laughed, saying to a clueless Quincy that he was Manny's replacement, perfect poetry.

As to this post, the theory behind it, i would go along with mcw, if its any good, you're gonna remember it, but then the general scenario and idea of poetry happening as a one off acoustic event, that's what it's all about too, in a very real sense.

I remember Jim Bennet who owns Poetry Kit, used to teach journalism in Edge Hill College where i learnt first with Robert Sheppard, and not knowing Poetry was his bag.

When it transpires he was a Poet, and telling us all about his own writing life, 55 books, a jobbing writer, very interesting life, a no nonsense scouser like Bleasdale and McGovern - a lot of the class hating him, just because he was a succesful writer and wasn't bullshitting, and them feeling well, this is the truth and perhaps feeling a bit like they could never end up like him - i asked him to spin us a poem, and he said:

"The thing about poetry, is it's all about time and place."

And over the years, i think i have found out that actually, Jim was like Sweeney, spot on in that regard.


jockcat - word ver (no messin)

Tony Williams said...

The opposite project might be to deliberately preserve some poems that you're not happy with, printing and reprinting them and hauling them out for readings. Ludicrous - but no less ludicrous.

On the other hand, give Kim Jong-il a few more months and a niggling stomach ulcer, and all the poems anyone's ever written could be gone for good anyway. It's all relative.

sefton said...

Serious question, slightly to the side of the issue:

Do any poets outside the slam realm bother to memorize their best material?

Back on point, at least there's some drama to it, and something that speaks to performance art. But I suspect I'd memorize something I really liked, and cheat. So I guess I'd be more curious to see it than to commit to it.

Baz said...

I like the idea. I would appreciate it as an audience member however, knowing that the performance would never be repeated.

Be like burning a million pounds!

Desmond Swords said...

Do any poets outside the slam realm bother to memorize their best material?


Michael Donaghy for example, considered one of the best of his generation, delvered what has commonly been described as spellbinding recitals of his poems.

It's a common fallacy often implied by people who don't memorize their work, that somehow those that do, are somehow the less serious practitioners, which is illogical.

Like someone who can only walk, saying people who run aren't moving from A to B in the proper accepted manner.

Reciting from memory, allows one to inhabit a performative realm which - until one has been there and done it - is impossible to speak of with any experience and thus, what the person who has never recited from memory has to say on the subject of reciting from memory, is not as valuable a contribution to the whole topic of speaking live poetry in its most sophisticated form of delivery, as the person who has.

I am equally at home with both, delivering from memory for the first four years until one time, naturally, going onto the page and feeling comfortable with it because i had had plenty of experience doing it from memory.

Anonymous said...

If I manage to write a poem that I really like, which happens occasionally, one of two things will have happened, and most probably a combination of both of them.

1 - The whole thing falls onto the page using my fingers as a mere conduit, irrefutable and perfectly married to itself and the language with which it connects to humankind (nice work if you can get it)

2 - I write what I think the poem is, I read it out loud, I love some of it, I hate some of it, I change the bits I hate, I read them out loud, I start to hate the bits I loved before, I change them, I read them out loud, I read the whole thing out loud, you get the picture - I'm sure I'm not on my own and most of you know what I'm talking about and don't need to be told how to suck eggs.

Anyway, the point I'm making is if I've written something beyond the merely competent, something with "my blood invested in it" isn't going to cease to exist at the very least if nothing else in my head just because I've torn the only copy of it to pieces on a stage, if you see what I mean. I believe Auden remarked that if a poet forgot how their poem went it couldn't possibly be finished. I don't know if he was part of the slam scene but I think it may have meant a completely different thing in his time...


Emerging Writer said...

Is it the same as a visual artist slashing a painting after a day? A photographer burning a negative? A sculptor smashing a sculpture? A chef chucking a gourmet meal in the skip? If it was any good, the audience/artist would remember it...
I can't see the point of it. I've a terrible terrible memory for poems, mine or others so my masterpiece would be in the skip under the foie gras.