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Friday, April 22, 2016

Poetry and Occidental Microaggression


It is not news that traditional American scholarship favors minimal audience participation and maximal stylistic restraint.  Objectivity demands the absence of passion, although passionate engagement of one's topic or subject matter is deemed acceptable.  In this sense, Marit J. MacArthur's "Monotony, the Churches of Poetry Reading, and Sound Studies," PMLA 131.1 (2016): 38-63 is a fine example of dual transgression.  MacArthur's effort to make a case for the overwhelming fear of theatricality and embrace of sincerity associated with strictly academic poetry readings exposes a retreat from forthright confrontation with human appetites, an exposure that traditional scholars might not welcome.  On the other hand, the article commits Occidental  microaggression: a stereotyping  in asserting  "many ethnic poets, including African American poets who trace their root to the black arts movement, favor audience participation and an expressive style" (59).   Many black poets and critics who are their cousins assiduously deny rootedness in the black arts movement; we have yet to find  convincing evidence that Chinese American poets, for example,  champion palpable audience participation.  Thus, in reading MacArthur and other Occidental critics (including ourselves) , we should attend to transgressions which may be accidental.

MacArthur's main topic is the favored neutral style in the performance of poetry readings, and we do need to note who so favors the style and distance ourselves from such people.  As MacArthur accurately suggests,  these people embrace monotonous incantation or high church style that apes an elevated sense of religious expression.  Silence or constipated emotion  is truly golden.  Although we (those of us who refuse to deny the innate properties of our ethnicity, including Jewish Americans) might tend to applaud MacArthur's transgressions initially, we are stopped in our tracks by the method of analysis. MacArthur uses ARLO (Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization) to measure the intonation or pitch patterns of audio recordings by Louise Gl├╝ck, Juliana Spahr, Michael Ryan, and Natasha Trethewey. Audio recordings?  Even the most sensitive instruments of technology ( and ARLO is not one of them) can't produce the kind of evidence produced by the human ear's hearing and feeling of live performance.  Much to her (I hope I'm using the proper gender pronoun) credit,  MacArthur does signify on the limits of digital humanities in the sonic domain.  Nevertheless, the limits of the instrument used to arrive at deliciously tentative conclusions about the church context of neutral style is not sufficiently acknowledged in the article. And by the standards traditional scholarship sets for objectivity, we have to say the sample of four poets is severely wanting.

MacArthur's effort to expose the anti-humanism of academic poetry readings has, to be sure, a certain nobility.  But it only deepens my common sense belief that the human ear is superior to any mechanical device in determining what is what in the performance of poetry.  We still have a far way to go before we can say with certainty who are the saints in non-academic poetry readings and who are the sinners in the zones of the oppositional academy.  MacArthur's article is a valuable learning moment.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 22, 2016

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