Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bloom on Speaking Poetry Out Loud

Scott Horton recently interviewed Harold Bloom, who has a new book out. Last year, Horton posted a video of Bloom reading Wallace Stevens' poem "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon." Apparently, Bloom feels understanding this poem is essential for understanding Stevens and his evolution as a poet. Here's the poem itself:

Tea at the Palaz of Hoon

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

–Wallace Stevens

Here's Bloom reciting it:

Bloom's style is halting and slightly declamatory, but he has excellent diction, and it's clear the poem holds great weight for him. He delivers it almost as an incantation, or scripture. At the end, he quotes part of another poem (with an unfortunate title).

In any case, I found the interview interesting, particularly this exchange:

6. We recently posted footage of your marvelous reading of Wallace Stevens’s “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” When you begin to work your way into a poem, do you find that intoning, or reading the poem aloud, is essential to its appreciation?

We start the academic year early here at Yale, and by the end of this month I’ll have two classes — one of them devoted to Shakespeare, the other to poetry. For my poetry students, there is a process I commend — take a poem that finds you, I will tell them, read it to yourself, then go to a quiet place, to your own space, and chant that poem, come to possess it. Find the space that the daimon of that poem inhabits and occupy it yourself. Then I ask my students to read the poem aloud in class. At this point in my life I find I’ve spent far too much time talking in class myself, and it is a pleasure for me now to listen to them. They are very bright, maybe brighter than students from decades ago, though also perhaps less well read. But I’ll ask my students also to begin a process of exegesis, to pull apart the thoughts of the poem, to delve into the words used, and that also is a process of appropriating, of coming to possess the poem, making it your own. But back to your point: poetry is an art of sound as much as an art of the printed word. The great work of poetry is to help us become free artists of ourselves. That work requires us to hear, and not merely to read, the poetry.

This process is also immensely important to the training and preparation of the mind. It was essential to the old tradition in education, a tradition to which we bid farewell in our graduate schools in the sixties. Now we live in an age of distraction, an age dominated by bombardment coming from the screen. Poetry, the process of making poetry your own, can be a refuge from that bombardment. But it’s also an essential disciplining of the mind, preparing one to think and speak critically and well. We live, too, in the age of the Tea Party, a movement that cherishes stupidity and zealotry and hates thinking, reading, and teaching. If these people had their way, we’d be done with teaching. It shows the weak-mindedness that has descended upon America, the proclivity for nonsense and political hatred, the disrespect for literature, history, and serious thinking. There is only one remedy to the current predicament, and that is to encourage people to think independently. And that, in turn, begins with reading. People need to remember the best that has been said and thought in the past. That is the starting point, and that is the path, out of our current appalling situation.

Ignoring the political angle for a moment, former National Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is a very strong proponent of reading poetry aloud as well. It leads to a deeper, more personal understanding. Pinsky calls poetry the most "bodily" of the arts. Pinsky, who plays jazz sax as well, explains what he means in this interview:

PINSKY: There’s a lot of cant about poetry and jazz. And yet there is something there in the idea of surprise and variation, a fairly regular structure of harmony or rhythm—the left margin, say—and all the things you can do inside it or against it. There are passages, like the last two stanzas of “Ginza Samba,” where I try to make the consonants and vowels approach a bebop sort of rhythm.

In Poetry and the World, I wrote: “Poetry is the most bodily of the arts.” A couple of friends who read it in draft said, Well, Robert, you know . . . dancing is probably more bodily than poetry. But I stubbornly left the passage that way without quite having worked out why I wanted to say it like that. Sometimes the ideas that mean the most to you will feel true long before you can quite formulate them or justify them. After a while, I realized that for me the medium of poetry is the column of breath rising from the diaphragm to be shaped into meaning sounds inside the mouth. That is, poetry’s medium is the individual chest and throat and mouth of whoever undertakes to say the poem—a body, and not necessarily the body of the artist or an expert as in dance.

In jazz, as in poetry, there is always that play between what’s regular and what’s wild. That has always appealed to me.

INTERVIEWER: In one of your essays, you quote Housman’s wonderful statement that he knows a line of poetry has popped into his head when his hair bristles and he cuts himself shaving. Is that the kind of thing you mean by the body of the audience?

PINSKY: Well, there is certainly a physical sensation that even subvocalized reading of some particular Yeats or Stevens or Dickinson poem can give me, just the imagination of the sounds. This sensation is as unmistakably physical as humming or imagining a tune.

What Pinsky's describing is probably familiar to poetry lovers who read out loud, as well as many an actor who's worked on a speech. The rehearsal process, or private recitation of a poem, is a time to become better acquainted with the text. There are several theater rehearsal techniques one can use to explore a text more fully, but the most important factor is simply spending time with it. Gradually, you make it your own, although this shouldn't be from projection onto it, but through a deeper, more intimate understanding of the text itself. Robert Pinksy's wonderful Favorite Poem Project encourages this approach.

As for Bloom's political observations, regrettably, he's absolutely correct. Movement conservatism, particularly the far right, authoritarian strain that dominates these days, is mean, reckless, ferociously anti-intellectual, and occasionally downright nihilistic. While I would prefer to keep the arts separate from politics, the unfortunate fact remains that the arts, education and at times empiricism itself are being assaulted by this breed of conservatives. As long as they keep doing so, it's not only fair to point it out – it's essential. We've examined their mentality before, and surely will again (Roy Edroso often does). Art is capable of saying more than one thing at a time, and deals with nuance and ambiguity. Good art often encourages self-reflection, thoughtfulness, attentiveness and empathy. It'll keep ya honest. For all these reasons, authoritarians hate it, and if they use art at all, they try to shackle it to narrow, propagandistic goals. In one sense, treating the arts this way is their loss, but the problem is their burning desire to inflict that loss on everybody else as well.

However, as Bloom says, poetry can be a 'refuge from the bombardment' of the current climate. George Orwell wrote that "A thing is funny when it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution." The same is true of much art, and certainly many a good poem. The reason to Sing the Body Electric isn't to make a teabagger cry – but it is a nice bonus.


mediabob said...

Thanks, B. I wonder if it would be acceptable to say politics is, also, art. A ballet form designed to move the author's ideas to a wider audience. All protagonists move in the same arc of interaction with many antagonists,, except, in politics, the antagonists are all similar. To make any sense of the political theater we see today, all one must do is see a "reality" show on television and understand the drive for power among the characters. The art is in the story and performance delivery.

Batocchio said...

Geoffrey Nunberg compared political talk shows and the guests they book to sitcoms, with "types" playing certain roles. There's a great deal of truth to that. There's also the saying the politics is show biz for ugly people. There's also truth to that. But oddly enough, as an actor pal of mine has pointed out, most politicians are awful at giving speeches. They're better than average people, perhaps, but most can't do it as well as a halfway decent actor.