A Howl against performance poetry

By elevating energy and gusto over talent and judgement, performance poetry is strangling the real thing.

Shirley Dent

Topics Culture

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked….’

With that line 50 years ago this month, Allen Ginsberg let rip with a poem that changed both the way poetry was perceived as a public event and pushed the limits of what poetry could say about the private: what TS Eliot called ‘private words spoken to you in public’. The anniversary of the first reading of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in San Francisco’s Six Gallery on 7 October 1955 coincided this year with the end of UK National Poetry Week. A comparison between the two offers a glimpse into why contemporary poetry is going wrong today.

‘Howl’ is a deeply personal poem on one level. Dedicated to Carl Soloman, it spits out the shared experience of mental ill-health and social ostracism while at the same time surrounding the reader with a sense of a mind-blowing love. William Carlos Williams writes in his introduction to ‘Howl’: ‘Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and courage and faith – and the art! – to persist…. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own – and, we believe, laughs at it and has the effrontery to love a fellow of his choice and record that love in a well-made poem.’

But it is neither the love that dare not speak its name finally speaking, nor the detailed catalogue of alienation, that made ‘Howl’ the poetic anthem of a generation. ‘Howl’ has been called, with justification, an ‘assault on American values’ – and it is this assault that astounded, and resonated with, the Cold War generation of 1950s America. Despite the near-rant quality of ‘Howl’, and Ginsberg’s adolescent indulgence (an indulgence he never got over) in esoteric mysticism and obfuscation, the poem is a cerebral and emotional jolt to the system. It succeeds in its mission to assault because it is not simply a rant but, as Carlos Williams says, ‘a well-made poem’.

‘Howl’ is alive with rhythm and reason and risk, working together. It does what you hope every good poem should do: knocks language about a bit, twists language with new reason, and says something in such a way that makes you lift your head from the page and think about the world anew. A testament to the power of ‘Howl’ is that it is still being printed – the edition I have is the fifty-ninth such printing – since its first publication in 1956 (which instigated an obscenity trial). The committal to print is an important part of the development of poetry, of why poetry is more than a throwaway rant or the la-di-da of a happy pop lyric. And yet, this notion that a poem is language arranged in a form that has the power to speak – to shock – beyond the immediate person is under heavy and consistent assault in contemporary poetry circles.

Ironically, it is performance poetry that is eating away at the universal characteristics of poetry. Voice has become, not something that is welded into lines of language on a once-blank page, but a fetishised thing of personal ownership – my voice, with my accent and all I have to say with this voice is to do with me, me, me. That’s why the only way you can experience this language is if I personally perform it for you.

Some performance poets – like Lemn Sissay – are good poets, so let’s not go mad and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nevertheless, the bath water is stagnant with its own misplaced self-righteousness and needs a good flushing out. The Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets Awards event on National Poetry day this year drove this home to me.

My beef here is not with the Poetry Society or the young poets. The Poetry Society does more work than any other body to ensure the continued life of poetry in the UK, and the fruits of its labours can be seen in the young poets’ work: there is work of great potential in the prize-winning collection of these 11- to 17-year-olds’ poems. Rather, my beef is that we are so very uncomfortable with the challenge that poetry, in its unsullied elitist form, lays down – even when its great potential is in our faces. This is not to say that nobody took the time or trouble to convey this challenge to the young poets on the evening itself: the critical challenge laid down by poet laureate Andrew Motion reading Keats’ ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’, and Michael Schmidt’s talk about poetry spinning out like a spider’s web, forcing you to discover something new in language, had me cheering along. But then it all went horribly wrong.

Poetry is difficult; let’s not make any bones about that. So I suspected something was up when a jovial Ian McMillan took to the stage and started talking about poetry as an adjunct of encouragement. The idea that all it takes is to be encouraged – that, I’m afraid, is a barefaced lie. It takes talent and criticism and judgement to create great poetry, just as Keats knew when he first looked into Chapman’s Homer.

And then the performance poets, the ‘Slambassadors’, took to the stage and all the talk of self-esteem and encouragement slotted into place. But what misguided and patronising encouragement to give these young people.

The energy and gusto of the young performers were never in doubt, but energy and gusto alone do not maketh the poet. That, however, is not my chief objection. It was as if a dividing line had suddenly been drawn in the room: between the mainly white middle-class young poets who made up the audience for the performance and who had just been listening to Keats, and the mainly black young performance poets who proceeded to tell us all about racism in the twenty-first century. This divide was beyond ignoring: it seemed to say Keats and metaphysics are okay for the white kids, while ideas of racial identity are for the black kids.

Now, if the Slambassadors had done a ‘Howl’ on us, if they had shot us down with their language, with their twisted erudition, if they had taken Keats and roughed him up a bit and returned him to us pierced through with insight, then this divide would not have mattered. It would have dissolved because language, doing what language humanly does at its best, would have taken us all somewhere else. But it was not so. Somebody has told these young people it is enough to speak and that they should be – will be – listened to; that their own authentic voice is enough. This is also a barefaced lie. ‘I want to be some place / where I am not judged by my race’ simply doesn’t cut it and does nothing to astound me or assault my senses. I was simply tempted to shout out: ‘You’d best get out of this room as quickly as possible, then.’

These kids may have reason to rant, but they should not make the mistake of thinking that ranting is enough without the 3Rs of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’: reason, rhythm and risk, with a good dollop of erudition thrown in. Nowhere in ‘Howl’ does Ginsberg say ‘I want to go away / to where I’m not judged cos I’m gay’. Courage in and through language, not encouragement to perform to a stereotype, is the name of the game in ‘Howl’:

‘…the madman bum and the angel beat in Time, unknown / yet putting down here what might be left to say / in time come after death / and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in / the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the / suffering of America’s naked mind for love into / an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone / cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio / with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered / out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand / years.’

Shirley Dent is speaking at the Battle of the books session and chairing the What is Poetry For? session at the Battle of Ideas in London on 29-30 October 2005.

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