Saturday, 11 May 2013

Q&A With Poetry Lecturer, Critic and Faber Published poet Jack Underwood Part 2

Jack Underwood

I attended your lecture at Goldsmith's where you said it is "arguable" that Spoken Word poetry stems from oral traditions - What is the argument and why is there such a divide between the page and stage poets?  

I think I actually said that it is ‘arguable’ that ALL poetry derives from an oral tradition, and this is a very common understanding sometimes used to validate oral poetic traditions that seem otherwise subordinately positioned in relation to glossy Western literary ones. It’s actually a little backhanded, because it validates oral poetry by seeking to align it with the past of literary tradition rather than arguing the validity of subsequent and contemporary oral traditions on their own terms: oral traditions are of interest because they’re interesting, not because they happened to develop into literary ones hundreds of years ago, in the lute-strumming days before television. But this ‘origin’ argument is also upheld because classically, and from the point of view of historicism, writing has always been positioned as a secondary system, predated by speech. Writing came later, we are told, so things like literary rhyme are really throwbacks to the need for memorability in folk song and folk tale. This is the classic line.

I prefer the post-Derrida view which is that there is an underlying false prioritisation of speech over writing in the Western tradition that is in part to do with the perceived idea of the spoken word being somehow transcendental, expressed more wholly, more directly, so that speech is more easily located with personal truth, as if you were speaking from some corner of the body, like the heart, where you really meant it. This is of course nonsense, and writing is not merely ‘knowledge by repetition’ as Socrates argues, when he, ironically enough, transcribes a speech by Plato. You couldn’t argue the distinct qualities of one without the other: how could speaking be a ‘raw’ state of language when it requires the ‘cooked’ written word to exist in order to provide it with that very quality of ‘uncookedness’? Neither one came first. So, the ‘oral beginnings of poetry’ line is a Western philosophical myth based on a kind of common sense essentialism that goes back to Metaphysics and Plato, and is to do with the false division of language into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ categories.

But then the page/stage ‘division’ isn’t really about any of this. I’d say the division begins with what you, as a poet, prioritise in your work, what you hope it will achieve in terms of an audience or readership, and those hopes are largely to do with your understanding of the tradition you’re working in, and what is deemed successful by that tradition, or within that medium: and they are two very different mediums and therefore very different traditions. In my first poetry classes, where the idea of performing a poem was never even brought up, we were told not to write ‘cry for help’ poetry, not to assume a reader’s interest in our lives, to create an objective distance between ourselves and our work and not to be satisfied with creating an amusing effect or stylish surface. There was general advice about how to interrogate an idea in a poem, how to necessitate an imaginative participation by your reader, how to invite complexity without disappearing up your own arse, and also guidance on how not to merely provide somebody with a didactic instruction towards a point of view. The division came along for my page peers and I, when we saw people at readings doing what seemed like the opposite of these things. There were lots of very good performance poets (‘Spoken Word’ started being used more in the mid-2000s, I think) who probably also spent their time working hard making their poems genuinely funny, or else making sure they were actually telling the audience something they thought was important, something about their lives or politics they wanted to express, and we saw these exact successful performative qualities as a kind of artlessness according to our contrary understanding of what a poem was up to. Written down, the differences between ‘us and them’ were only made clearer. We saw that the traditions were different, the aims were different, but there was a lot of polite attempts in the interests of convivial, community spirit to merrily reconcile the two, and pretend they were the same thing, which actually only cemented the distinction, and framed performers trying to do quite different things, as just being bad at what we were trying to do, which was unfair. I don’t expect a 2nd wave Modernist to read on the page like I do, so why should I expect a performance poet to? I’m bored by the kind of tribalism that implies something Other is a malformed version of one’s own ‘pure’ form. You have to allow each poem to declare its own terms. You shouldn’t seek to herd up poets into tribes, nor should you be ignorant and suggest there are not different traditions and forces and strategies at play. I’m afraid it’s rather more complex than that, and to deny it either way is to give in to lazy conservative forces. I’ve always felt like this, in fact, only now I’m 34% less likely to declare it drunkenly to someone I’ve just met. Now I’m more likely to demand that a stranger watch a Holly Pester reading on my phone.

And of course, like most page poets, I do readings too, and must admit that I get a lovely narcissistic whoosh of the kind that only a room’s full attention gives you, so I know the appeal, but I also feel that when it comes to poems, desiring that whooshing feeling is actually a bit gross, because I don’t like the sweaty arrival of my needy ego into a room, because I feel I’m betraying the hard work I undertook with the full philosophical weight of my convictions towards ART, deliberately with a view not to make this about me, but rather about an idea or feeling of potential universal, philosophical value, and to make poetry thereby an essentially empathetic act. So when I’m up there, reading my work, reattaching the words to me, their author, it’s not empathy I’m enjoying, it’s self-love, it’s feeling agreed with, feeling loved. I don’t like the idea of monopolising what a poem is about by furthering the attachment of what it says to my authorial intention. I want to give it up to an Other so that it becomes more about them. I also dislike the ugly idea of my gauging something like the ‘mastery’ of an audience, which is vaguely pathetic when you think that most people don’t come to a reading to resist the charming poems in the first place.

So, I write for the page because I think that for all the social kudos of a decent reading, I should prioritise the making of a construct that is built to exist separate from me, to be absorbed quietly into the life and throat muscles of another, to be reliant certainly as much on their imagination. I’m fairly sure other page poets feel the same, if by degrees. To have something intoned, or acted out to me makes me feel like it is being indexed to the author by their performing it, and while that can be thrilling for some, it basically runs counter to the whole philosophy of language I ascribe to. I’m finding advantages, or disadvantages, I know. And of course there are plenty of performances that do not reattach the words to the central agency of the performer so much, and part of the distinction between performance poetry and Spoken Word seems to be about this; I’ve honestly not got much truck with crass tribalism or creating hierarchy. If I don’t like something it isn’t my superior taste or morality doing the business, it’s to do with my own hang-ups and priorities about what I do. So, I’m sure I’ll have put my foot in it again with this one, but I’m prepared to suggest that if there is still a divide, it might be to do with a hardening and poor handling of these kinds of feelings or reservations among page poets generally, and similar (if opposite?) concerns among performers about the awful poems they see on the page: the banal anecdotal poem, the politely emotional poem, the elitist, deliberately obscure, over-written arch and pretentious poem, the faux-postmodern reference to gaming, internet-chat-speak, and popular culture poem, the predictable anthropomorphising poem…Professionally, as a reviewer and lecturer I spend infinitely more time and energy attacking these prevalent deficiencies in the page world than I ever do bemoaning the laboured rhymes of a barroom versifier. The erstwhile politics of self-affirmation seem dumb when you realise how little you identify wholly with your own tradition, and equally how much else there is out there on the fringes. Have you read any Jennifer Knox, for example? I’m more interested in reading more widely and variously than I am chucking rocks over whatever wall at my stage-dwelling cousins. That sort of thing seems conservative and adolescent now. For me it’s about pursuing what interests me, and that could indeed be a stage poet, sure, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more intuitively and far more regularly drawn to other corners, and I think many other page poets feel the same.

Part 3 of this interview will include my response to this discussion, stay tuned.


  1. An interesting, and thought provoking, piece, if at times a little muddled. Thank you.

    The proposition that an oral tradition pre-dated a written one is incontrovertible. The proposition that hearing (or speaking) words, and reading (or writing them down) them, presents distinct advantages, and disadvantages, is equally incontrovertible.

    Jack seems to spend much time dancing around the periphery of these propositions.

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  3. Thanks Gary. I'll take dancing around over jackbooting through every time, because the history of language is not something that one can make stable propositions about. I'd call my dancing an awareness of the irony of metalanguage: the very binaries and terms that antedate our discussions of speech and writing, are symptomatic of the limits of the very system which we are seeking to describe. I call that an awareness of language philosophy, not "dancing around". To characterise a position of doubt as a florid, frivolous display is to prioritise a 'common sense world view' which goes against not just the spirit of debate itself, but also, arguably, against poetry and its contradictory logic; it's 'anti-complexity' and I really do think that discussion about speech and writing are very complex indeed. Maybe the binary 'muddled'/ 'incontrovertible' also carries undertones of other potentially damaging culturally perpetuating binaries: 'open/ closed', 'uncertain/ certain', 'unknown/ known', dare I say 'feminine/ masculine'?

    Anyway, I'd like to address your assertion that "The proposition that an oral tradition pre-dated a written one is incontrovertible." If by this you mean 'unprovable' I agree, but I suspect you mean 'indisputable', or 'beyond doubt', or 'without question' which is as lazy a philosophical starting point with a view towards discussing the entire history of language or verbal art forms as there can be. Why on earth you would bring 'proof' or 'certainty' into such a subjective and diverse cultural field at all is rather beyond me.

    Firstly, for you to be 100% incontrovertibly correct, you'd have to argue that there is such a thing as an 'incontrovertible' tradition: when, exactly, does this tradition begin? What is the origin point of the 'written tradition'? What do you mean by 'tradition'? Are you prioritising the Western 'literary' tradition, for example? Are so called 'primitive' paintings, markings or visual languages exempt from discussions of written/spoken language? What is 'writing' even, beyond all doubt? What about performance? Ceremony? Are these not also part of language? How far is the written/spoken binary even useful when you begin to consider what language is or does? What about phatic utterances, or groans or sighs? What about marking territories with scent, or sticks? In early languages how might these be divided? It's very complex.

    If you don't actually mean 'tradition' at all, but instead that Speech predates Writing incontrovertibly, then yes, that is certainly beyond proof, but only in the sense that we cannot prove one came before the other. But to suggest that we first evolved to speak, and then evolved to write things down afterwards, is an assumption, and a very lazy assumption, and one that Derrida, among others, argues is hugely problematic in terms of how our philosophical discourses are constructed, and reconstructed.