Intervistare la voce: Charles Bernstein

By and | 1 September 2013

EM: But reading a poem is not an act, just to come back a little bit to the previous item of improvisation, as the written text does not give any performing indication – how to shout, for example, or how to whisper or to speak fast. I mean that the value of an iamb, a spondee or a trochaic rhythm as oral cue cannot be discounted, but the speed of reading, the dynamics, the tone … are they left to chance, to the meaning of being read in that moment?

CB: The improvisation in poetry performance occurs in the unscripted / extra-lexical choices you suggest: rhythm, amplitude, pitch, pace, enunciation, accent. There is an affective dimension to the performance (even if the performance is very neutral) that a readers have to project into the words for themselves; so yes I think implicitly that reading aloud, or at least aurally, is crucially for much poetry. Metre is abstract and ideal; rhythm is heard or experienced: it’s language embodied.

EM: If we trust Peire Cardenal’s statement, ‘For no man except me understands my language’, poetry is useless, impossible as communication through the linguistic instrument. Can you argue against this?

CB: I am interested in the debate over closed and open verse among troubadour poets such as Cardenal and Giraut de Bornelh: (trobar leu [easy] versus trobar clus [hermetic]. But the Cardenal quote in the epigraph to ‘Close Listening’ – which continues, ‘As little as they understand the nightingale / Do the people understand what my song says’ – struck me because it voices the power of the poet’s sound/song (the poet represented by the traditional symbol of the nightingale) and the difficulty grasping its meaning. Nothing is more powerful in human language than the sound of a voice, yet we can’t ascribe a rational meaning to this: it is both semantically elusive and human language’s most concrete expression. This is close of Jakobson’s definition of the poetic function: we both hear and listen. The lament that no one listens to poetry, to cite the Spicer epigraph that follows, is not a resignation to the impossibility of communication but an invocation to the ‘lapsed Soul’ to ‘Hear the voice of the Bard!’: ‘Turn away no more; / Why wilt thou turn away? / The starry floor, / The wat’ry shore, / Is giv’n thee till the break of day.’

EM: Can you explain what you mean by ‘close listening’ to a poem?

CB: I mean attending in some detail to the performance dimension of the work, especially as made available in recordings such as those we archive on PennSound. Very few discussions of a poem give an account of its performance by the poet. In my classes, I always assign close listenings as well as close readings.

EM: Like you, I am attracted to religious prayer. The occasions I went to Jerusalem, I spent hours watching Jewish people waving their bodies at the Wailing Wall. So, in a way, they are performers. Apart from Rothenberg’s ethno-poetic research and the poems recorded by Kostelanetz about the different manner to pray, where does poetry lie in the religious field?

CB: Liturgy is one of the origins of the poetry many of us still practice. Susan Stewart takes on such deep cultural functions of poetry in her most recent book, The Poet’s Freedom. My engagement is with poetry that averts religion in pursuit of less proscribed modes of thinking and living. Poetry is, indeed, the ‘lie in the religious field.’ And only the lie will set us free.

EM: You rightly praise Baraka’s performance. What do you think when music is involved in a performance of poetry? And can you state clearly the difference according to you between a song and poem which includes music?

CB: My own engagement with music and poetry is the libretti I have written for composers Ben Yarmolinsky, Dean Drummond, Brian Ferneyhough, and Anne LeBaron. The composers have set the texts I have written for them, making them part of their own work. I am attracted to the idea of the operas as being primarily the composer’s work because it allows for a transformation from what I can do when I perform my own poems. And I enjoy the tremendous difference in the way each of these composers has set my words. As for the genre question, the distinction between song lyric or libretto and poem is practical and historical, not absolute. As a practical matter, a song lyric or libretto is not usually written to stand up on its own: it calls out to be completed by the music. For me that has meant writing in a different, less sonically intricate/saturated style. But, by saying that, I do enjoy performing the scripts of those libretti, which becomes a kind of poet’s theatre, with me playing all the parts. And much of the libretto for Shadowtime is poetry, that is, I didn’t follow the rule I just suggested – indeed this was the idea that Brian and I has for the libretto: that it would stand up by itself as a poem; but the verbal strata in the opera is entirely different than the poem you read in the book – this incommensurability interested us in terms of the subject of the opera, Walter Benjamin.

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