OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was at school we had one music lesson that stood out from others long forgotten, in which, exasperated, the teacher sat down at the piano and began to play the blues. He told us of his playing in clubs in America where the crowds ignored him, eating and drinking and talking.

Contrast this with the concert hall, where we sit in silent awe while the orchestra performs. There is an interesting comparison here too, with the literary concert and the live-reading club. Speakeasies of one sort or another are common these days. We have one in Carlisle. Lancaster has its Spotlight Club. Liars League runs in London, New York and Hong Kong, and elsewhere!

In all these cases, so far as I have experienced, the audience is more like the concert hall one, than the one in the noisy blues club to which my music teacher played. Yet that might be a cultural phenomena. There’s an interesting account near the opening of James Fenton’s ‘An Introduction to English Poetry’ (Penguin, 2002) in which he describes a discussion between an African and an America poet. The American has criticised the African for his drumming and singing, which makes it harder, the American says, for the following ‘voice only’ poet. The African points out that in his culture the audience must be subdued by the performance; that there is no automatic grant of attention, such as the American poet (and the European) expects.

Fenton rather favours the African, and suggests that ‘the words may be no more than a notation for a performance’ or ‘may be written for the page’. The implication, seeming to distance the page from the possibilities of reading aloud, which in its turn is conflated with ‘performance’.

My own experience, and I’m sure I’ve cited this before, threw up a ‘performance’ in which I had my wife throw a flat cap up on to the stage for me to wear while reading a poem about a Lakeland shepherd. Years later I bumped into a man who remembered that performance – you’re the chap with the cap – but not the words of the poem. Norman Nicholson, in his poem ‘The Whisperer,’ says he cannot command our attention by the ‘force’ of his work and personality, but must look for those ‘lit’ with the ‘grace’ of listening.

The confrontation between the African and the American might, in part, have been a misunderstanding of what they were both doing. If the performance is to aid presentation of the words there are different criteria than if the words are to aid the presentation of the performer. In an age of celebrity this latter case might be considered the norm.

The reading of words aloud might be a performance, and thinking back to my music teacher, I’m reminded that there was a popular song a few decades ago which told us explicitly that it was ‘the singer, not the song’, but surely it could also be ‘the writing, not the writer’.TalkingtoOwls

Advertisements