Robert Wood: poetry readings

  R.D. Wood

  Relational Networks

  Towards a Sociological Reading
  of Poetry Performance
We might start by asking: what is happening at a reading?


Recently, I was sitting at a poetry reading in inner Melbourne being frustrated. It was a polite, quiet, intimate gathering. No one spoke out of turn. It appeared quite white and, at least culturally, very bourgeois. People were full of vague praise and murmured support. The real criticism, I imagined, took place after the fact, in a different set of social relations behind closed doors.


There is though nothing remarkable about any of this. This reading, to me, seemed typical of readings in urban Australia. I can speak only of Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, but I can imagine similar scenes in the other capital cities, which may well be reflected overseas. I do not want to complain about the lack of frisson here or the irksome identity politics or review the content of what was said or even compare it to the bush poetry events and Indigenous song poetry interactions I have experienced, both of which have a remarkably different energy and discipline. I was frustrated because there was no recording of this moment, which meant criticism or praise of it was unlikely beyond a short conversation at the end.

A poetry book launch and reading at Gleebooks in Sydney in 2010.
A poetry book launch and reading at Gleebooks in Sydney in 2010.


The reading was very good and if it were a book it would have received far more attention. Reading like this – from a page to a quiet, seated audience – has, of course, been with us for some time. All of which is not necessarily remarkable. But readings have a history too and their unremarked-upon quality today is an area for future inquiry. It is not so much a question of what is the history of the event, but where are reviews of performances, readings of readings, in our poetry press now? And what does this say about the discourse around orality?


In this piece I respond to Nick Moudry’s article ‘Book History and Poetry Reading’ which was recently published in Jacket2 here. I want to focus on what he identified as Peter Middleton’s ‘the collective event’ of a poetry reading in his work Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry. As Moudry claims this draws in part on recent scholarship in the history of the book including work such as Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents: Dime-Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (1998), or Janice Radway’s study of the female readers of romance novels in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1991). I will discuss a specific approach to readings. The references are to contemporary Australian poetry, which is my local context.


Reviews of readings appear too infrequently to my mind and require major events in order to be cited rather than drawing on the regularity of that which is said aloud. Of course, this suggests not only a preference for writing compared to orality, if we dare to make such a distinction post Jacques Derrida, but also that we lack a sociology of readings, a critical way of examining them and very little criteria for thinking through poetry in possibly its most common form. What follows is not a theory or an idea but introductory notes for a sociological study of poetry readings. Sociology remains, to my mind, an under-utilised companion to the psychoanalytic or language focused accounts more commonly found in close reading and review culture here, but it offers significant tools and ways of speaking and thinking through poetry.


We might start by asking: what is happening at a reading? There is a speaker who reads words on a page to an audience that listens (or doesn’t). It is a speech act, a delineated form of speech that approximates everyday conversation but differs markedly because it is, amongst other things, monologic for a longer period of time and has a different texture – people perform their readings in a way that the performance is not a sort of ordinary discipline, even as that can be a certain type of act.


Rhythm, metre, pitch and a whole host of other qualities generally differ from ‘normal’. It could also be thought of as a language game with its own rules and logic. But it is not enough to cite it as a speech act or draw on theories of language to discuss how this embodied social interaction occurs.Readings are an example of an ‘interaction ritual chain’ involving elaborate citation that accumulates and has consequence for status group positionality. But what, of course, does that all mean?


I use the term ‘interaction ritual chain’ in the same vein as Randall Collins, a contemporary American sociologist who draws heavily on Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman. Ritual in Collins’ formulation is ‘a mechanism of mutually focused emotion and attention producing a momentarily shared reality, which thereby generates solidarity and symbols of group membership.’ Ritual then is different from a ceremony like a wedding – it is a far more common experience than the anthropological rendering of ritual with its religious connotations. In a poetry reading the audience may focus on the poet who makes a private discourse ‘public’, which generates solidarity and a shared language. The symbol of group membership might be a way of speaking, or it could be a book that refers to this speaking. We know, for example, who our fellow poets are because they hold their own books with tabs and post-it notes indicating what they are to read when it is their turn on the podium.


In the ritual people become entrained in each others’ bodily micro-rhythms and emotions. We lean in to hear the quiet voices, laugh out loud to show our support for the funny ones, clap at the end for roughly the same time as everyone else to say ‘thank you’ to the poet and signal our position in the collective. The ritual can be thought of as having inputs (‘ingredients’) and outputs (‘outcomes’).


As Collins’ puts it, the ingredients for an interaction ritual are:

    1. Two or more people are physically assembled in the same place, so that they affect each other by their bodily presence, whether it is in the foreground of their conscious attention or not.
    2. There are boundaries to outsiders so that participants have a sense of who is taking part and who is excluded.
    3. People focus their attention upon a common object or activity, and by communicating this focus to each other become mutually aware of each other’s focus of attention.
    4. They share a common mood or emotional experience. (p. 48)


And the outcomes are:

    1. Group solidarity, a feeling of membership;
    2. Emotional energy [EE] in the individual: a feeling of confidence, elation, strength, enthusiasm, and initiative in taking action.
    3. Symbols that represent the group: emblems or other representations (visual icons, words, gestures) that members feel are associated with themselves collectively; these are Durkheim’s “sacred objects.” Persons pumped up with feelings of group solidarity treat symbols with great respect and defend them against the disrespect of outsiders, and even more, of renegade insiders.
    4. Feelings of morality: the sense of rightness in adhering to the group, respecting its symbols, and defending both against transgressors. Along with this goes the sense of moral evil or impropriety in violating the group’s solidarity and its symbolic representations.(p. 49)


A poetry reading then might be an interaction ritual with two people – the reader and the listener – in a kitchen or it could involve hundreds at a graduation ceremony. Most readings though that I have been to in Australian capital cities have between 15 and 30 audience members and between 1 and 4 readers. They are medium sized rituals. They take place in cafés, pubs, bookstores, universities, town halls and homes. There are barriers to entry, which are more often cultural than economic. One does not often need to pay to hear a reading, but one might find it particularly challenging to step inside a particular place when one is met by a group of strangers from a different milieu. Poetry seems paradoxically both very open and at the same time remarkably closed off. The common object of attention at the ritual is the reader, and people share a common mood even as they bring their own feelings to the interaction.


After the ritual there is a sense of shared experience – ‘we all saw Michael Farrell dedicate his ‘field’ poem to Jared Zimbler at Gleebooks which was a wonderful way to end the workshop’. There is too an emotional outcome to this – ‘I feel relief at having finished my reading’, ‘I feel calmness at listening to such soothing words’, ‘I feel discombobulated by Christian Bök’s rendition of Kurt Schwitters’ ‘Ur Sonata’’. This emotion may lead to action – ‘I will go home and write a poem in the Farrell style’. The symbols might be the books that are for sale or the compliments that people often repeat. Finally, there may be feelings of morality and this is where criticism is significant.

Christian Bök reading
Christian Bök reading


Aesthetic judgements of the poems one has just listened to are always, to some extent, moral. One can be outraged and find the group unreceptive and hence be ostracised. One can be overcome, start to cry and think that one will never write poetry as good as that which has just been read and abandon one’s work. One can be too open to the world and be unable to judge what has happened in any critical way. All of these are moral outcomes that are potentially actionable. Either way the feelings of morality structure and demarcate what is appropriate criticism.


I want to focus on one particular outcome of a ritual, namely emotional energy. Positive emotional energy will lead to more of that behaviour. We are entrained by it so that it becomes a habit. If for example we are clapped for six minutes at the end of a poetry reading we may try reading out poetry again, and in the process become a sacred object known as a ‘good poet’. If we are booed, or perhaps even worse, met with silence, then we may be less likely to engage in this ritual. In this negative outcome, our emotional energy is depleted and we do not generally seek it out again.


We could identify quite similar experiences as audience members too. If we enjoy the reading we entrain ourselves to return so much so that it becomes a habit – ‘every Saturday you can find me at The Moon Café listening to poets at the Perth Poetry Club. It’s like church for me.’ In thinking of this positive/negative emotional energy divide I am, of course, aware that this sounds like a seek pleasure/avoid pain commentary, but that is only to be thought of in a general and ideal type manner. It is, of course, far more complicated when we live and breathe these things as our embodied selves and each interaction is a complicated set of moments containing highs and lows.


Lessons though are to be learned from the emotional energy outcomes of interaction ritual chains in a meta way as well. Poetry, if we could speak of it as a structure or a network, suffers from negative emotional energy, its detractors say. Poetry, we are told, again and again, does not matter because of this. But all we discover in those admonishments is that poetry has a different oikos of emotional and material energy, a different set of ritual chains that make it what it is. And that may mean there are a devoted few who have a positive entrainment where others only see negatives.


It should be noted though that not all interactions are equal – a passing phrase like ‘shirtfront’ could refer to a red wine stain between two people of equal status talking among themselves about where something is located, or it could have potentially dire consequences given the position of two people speaking as respective leaders of nation states. A scribble could be a practice signature or it could certify a mortgage contract or it could be a vital part of a peace process that saves lives, depending in part on the identity of the signer and the context in which it occurs. The point is interaction ritual chains are not divorced from identity or context, but rather constitute it and are constituted by it in a feedback loop. And one can see how this matters for the identity of a poet who engages with readings. If Astrid Lorange reframes an Outback Steakhouse menu as a poem there is a different set of concerns than if John Kinsella does the same thing, precisely because they occupy different positions in the field and have different ‘projects’. The author then is not so much dead as unconsciously attached to the society of which their body is a part.


The second part of what is happening at a reading is elaborate citation, a process of referring to living members of the group through glances and other embodied languages as well as the past language of other poets. If we hear a certain phrase we might recognise that a previous author has combined language in the same way before and hence we think about the current poet’s relationship. For example, we might hear ‘etherised’ and be reminded of T. S. Eliot and wonder what the poet is doing by invoking this word. Of course, we could drive ourselves mad in the process of trying to find where every phrase ‘comes from’ (if not in some Historic sense then at least genealogically) and of course our reading frames, the library of references, we each bring to listening to a poem differs and remains incomplete. But there is a referential quality, a citational element, to poetry that makes it important precisely because the individual poet enters into a context that is to some extent pre-existing and only minutely changeable.


I think these two aspects lead us to status groups. Class is not enough to think through a reading, particularly given how little, economically, is at stake in poetry. And besides, if one were to visit Perth Poetry Club on any given Saturday, there are people of every class in the room, none of which has a bearing on their position in the field. Nor is it a ‘subculture’ in Dick Hebdidge’s sense of the word. It recalls, to my mind, a status group in Max Weber’s definition. He writes:


In contrast to classes, status groups are normally communities. They are, however, often of an amorphous kind. In contrast to the purely economically determined ‘class situation’ we wish to designate as ‘status situation’ every typical component of the life fate of men [sic] that is determined by a specific, positive or negative, social estimation of honour… Both propertied and propertyless people can belong to the same status group, and frequently they do with very tangible consequences. This ‘equality’ of social esteem, may however, in the long run become quite precarious.


Status groups then revolve around honour, or to extrapolate around cultural capital. We cannot deny that there are material outcomes to poetry including books, small cheques, grants and perhaps even tenure. However, money or property or commodities do not dominate it. It is not class we are getting at but status groups then, which interacts with lifestyle.


Status groups are contained within other status groups too. We could think of these as sub-status groups. One example that comes to mind is avant garde versus mainstream. Honour is conferred differently for these groups. One ascends because of authorial choices involving different poetic qualities – strict rhyme and metre might be valued in the mainstream, dissonance in the avant garde. But structurally there might be similarities between who has cultural capital regardless of this tribal affiliation. You need to publish, you need to be productive, you need to have good social connections, you need to be distinctive and you need to have longevity, all of which are just some of the ways in which Robert Adamson and John Kinsella could be said to be equivalent.


There are other varying intersections here as well, and other identities matter and interact, and it is not often that one finds a coterie of poets easily analysable as a collective. Regardless of identity though, poetry is a network where status is important, where cultural capital and emotional energy matter and inform practices and determine rituals. To refer back to Weber, people are working towards honour, in the form of relations, publications and respect, far more than they working towards a pile of cash so they can become private property owners and advocate for their class interests.


What though should we do, as poetry readers, with this sociology? We could imagine a review that stated the obvious – 28 people, 42 minutes, 4 poets, 16 poems, 28 seconds of applause – and that would be an important place to start. One could then move onto less objective comments – Poet 1: high emotional energy as a reader, met with stony response; Poet 2: quiet voice but good comic timing, met with laughter; Poet 3: bored delivery, flat affect, might be in a low period, met with uncharacteristic murmurs; Poet 4: strong delivery, leaning in by crowd, serious consideration, loud applause. Poet 3 cited Braithwaite, Bernstein, Bolaño. After the reading, two audience members spoke in private with Poet 4 as with her left hand she stroked the sacred object of a chapbook she had authored and read from.


The success of the ritual could be determined by asking how people felt afterwards, whether they stayed around to talk, whether people returned when specific poets read again. These are only the beginnings for a sociological consideration of a reading. When it has been sufficiently established, one could move on to the content, form and style of the reading, in other words the poetics of it. This way of understanding poetry readings might be structurally similar to a whole host of other practices – sport, traffic, sex – and we could learn from the Collins’ examples in his book Interaction Ritual Chains for how to read them similarly.


Applying sociology to poetry suggests that we need conversations about the culture of poetry in order to alter aesthetic practices within it. I don’t intend sociology, as I have mapped it, to be an alternative to the close reading of reviewing practices. I intend for it to be a complement. We need to hear about the context of the performances as well as to pay attention to things like pitch and vocalisation. The corollary for books might be that we need to hear about some aspect of the social relations that occurred in the publication – where are reviews of editors, publishers, printers compared to our obsession with authors? To reify one individual seems both unrealistic and insidious.


So much of our critical culture depends upon readings and yet there is very little written discussion of what is happening at a reading, which might suggest there is not enough considered reflection on these rituals. Poetry relies on face-to-face conversations far more than prose, and word of mouth is essential to the economy of poetry. Yet not enough attention is paid to what makes a performance worthwhile and refers back to the page, or what a spoken word or slam poet is like regardless of whether or not they write anything down at all. Writing is not just about posterity and it is not sealed off from orality. There are different relations between types of reading and writing that are important to think through.


Attention to sociology will change how we think of readings as a shared emotional interaction. Micro-sociology as a materialist enterprise focuses on the embodied world. Reading gestures, comportment, habitus all become important considerations in conjunction with words and voice. Sociology focuses on the shared, visible interaction, on society in other words, rather than a speculative or psychoanalytic approach centred on the individual or the mind. It realises that happiness, sadness, anger are all contextual and historical and can only be examined when the group is studied. Focusing on predominantly oral rituals will also change how we review books in general and sociology offers one approach to open up this field. We could for example think of the link between a reading of a poem and its inclusion in a book subsequently, of whether or not the poet transferred it to written form because of a positive, or even negative, reaction when performed out loud for a crowd.


In that way interviews with poets regarding framing is necessary and the ways in which poems emerge and circulate in a literary economy is a form of knowledge to be demystified. In addition to drawing attention to these interactions, we could also think through the role of editors and other staff in publishing poetry as a whole when we review books. What does a review that examines the field look like when we do not reify the author? That is simply one such question that demands further interrogation, inflected of course by a sociological theory and praxis.


Collins, Randall. Interaction Ritual Chains, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005
Perth Poetry Club
Michael Farrel, Inge de Kok, John Mateer Reading at Sappho, September 15, 2013

Robert Wood, 2015.
Robert Wood, 2015.

R. D. Wood has previously had work published in Best Australian Poems, Southerly, JASAL, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies and Foucault Studies. RD Wood holds degrees from ANU and the University of Pennsylvania. He has had work published in Foucault Studies, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies and JASAL. See his work here.

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