“Most poets can’t read their own writing.” Leslie Norris said this as we mulled over a reading we’d attended the night before. He wasn’t speaking just about Mormon poets, though most poets reading at the previous night’s gathering had been Mormon. He meant poets generally.
His criticism wasn’t an off-handed remark. He meant it as vital instruction. Many people who have heard him read can sense that for Leslie, getting words down on paper was only part of the business of writing poetry. His verse bloomed when he spoke it aloud to an audience. Or we could say a kind of auditory sun rose in his verse when he performed it. That is, if we could hear the sun rise, it would sound something like Leslie performing a poem.
Leslie’s ability to read his own verse wasn’t a gift in the sense of something born whole with a person and not in any need of tinkering. He was raised among a folk ““ the Welsh ““ who still tend to the oral tradition in language arts with great care. Here in the U.S., among the general middle class culture dependent upon the accessibility of written texts one may read in private to “experience” a story and upon various entertainment industries to “bring the story to life” or make it “interactive,” the deeply social nature of an oral tradition might appear quaint, even primitive. But people who experience the heightened levels of engagement that can occur when a skilled singer, poet, or storyteller speaks across to you, opening up a circuit between the performer and the audience, the past and the present, and the human and the divine, know: Performing verse well and hearing it well-performed isn’t simply enjoying a pleasurable experience ““ it’s engaging in a communally creative and spiritual act.
With the possible exception of singing, poetry’s sister art, poesy’s roots are sunk the most deeply into oral tradition and the craftsmanship and showmanship entailed therein. So how can it be that, as Leslie said, so many poets can’t read their own verse?
Answers to this question will vary from poet to poet, but I’d like to propose two important areas wherein modern poetry generally drops off into a mumble. First, the social roots of poetry have become much neglected, the free-wheeling spirit of “self-expression” having taken hostage the flow that traditionally and effectively ran from the muse through the performer to the audience. Second, not a lot of poets — that is, not a lot in proportion to how many there are — have caught on that human language is more than a mere tool one picks up to accomplish a task and then puts back when the task is completed. Language creates experience, causes things to happen. Or, as I’ve put it before, language does things to and for people. Engaging language is not a matter of manipulating an object or a system, it’s performing an act entailing power. How much power, and to what effect, depends on the poet’s skill, intent, and level of engagement with experience.
In his book Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, John D. Niles investigates oral narrative as a “type of social action” whereby “strong communication” takes place between a performer and his/her audience. Niles proposes that such moments of communication unite the separate souls of the audience, “sparking recognition of their common character or fate.” He describes the intense nature of this poet-audience interaction as a sender-receiver relationship and discusses how the physical presence of the performer enhances the power of language that crosses the physical and mental gap between the sender and the receivers.
As an example, Niles speaks of a Scottish oral tradition bearer named Lizzie Higgins, whose performances he describes as uncanny. Lizzie referred to her intense experiences of sending and receiving as the “maysie.” Higgins, Niles says, “derived the word from “˜muse’ and said the experience has to do with inspiration.” He speculates that the word has hybridized from the verb “amaze” but decides that the exact etymology doesn’t matter. More important is what the maysie does to both performer and audience. Niles describes the physical effects he felt while witnessing Lizzie perform:
It takes the form of a sort of chill. There are shivers at the spine, and the small hairs on your body start to rise and move. Animals know about this, but not all humans do. While it lasts it is like a living death. Emily Dickinson knew the feeling well “¦
The power of the maysie, Niles says, “depends on the presence of receivers, not just a sender.” Much of modern literature has become ambivalent to this relationship or completely lost touch with it. The reasons are many, but probably one of the more important problems is that ideas about self-expression, where the performer/poet acts as the eminent receptacle of the maysie, have skewed the performer-audience relationship. A self-expression-based performance hogs the spotlight while the audience sits physically and spiritually isolated in a darkened hall as if its members are passive consumers of a product rather than essential participants whose reactions can, as Niles puts it, guide and inspire the performer. Beside engendering nonchalance or confusion regarding judgment of the quality of a poet’s craftsmanship and showmanship, self-expression reduces the maysie to a genie in a bottle who’s bound to do the bidding, good or bad, of the person possessing it.
An effective oral performance will bear, as Niles describes it, “a corporeality about it, a sensible, somatic quality that derives from the bodily presence of performers and listeners.” That is, it will be “collaborative” and dependent on “a visible, audible, olfactory, and sometimes tactile connection” between the audience and the poet/performer. Together, performer and audience create an environment in which the maysie may flourish. Self-expression, on the other hand, endows the poet with the full, perhaps overblown figure of creativity, meanwhile reducing the audience’s role to an anorexic, passive presence in the creative act.
Thus the thriving maysie catches up not only the poet, the “maker,” but also the audience, who will take the poet’s words and make something of them, perhaps long after the performance has ended. So any poet wishing to produce a lasting effect between an audience and him/herself must practice the social graces of the maysie. That is, to create an environment hospitable to the maysie, a poet performing aloud must take upon him/herself a great deal of social responsibility in behalf of and along with the audience as well as practice the physical skills reading or performing requires, including crafting his/her voice. He/she must cultivate the physical presence to get across to an audience as well as to enable the audience to come across to him/her. A poet must wire his/her language for sound and other sensation as well as for broad yet communal meaning.
Now, as part of accepting that social responsibility and cultivating physical presence, a poet might to try to learn the power language has to do, or to cause things to happen, such as produce a physical effect upon the audience or enable some shift in thinking (usually, an unintentional shift in a totally unpredictable direction). Niles speaks of oral tradition mostly in its role as the shaper of communal identity, a preserver of communal values, which includes a “consciousness of a past.” But also, as he says, storytelling, including poetry, is a “type of social action “¦ [relating] to people’s understanding of the world and, ultimately “¦ helps create that understanding through its cosmoplastic [world-building] power.” Through talented performers skilled in their native language, the maysie, Niles says, may sometimes “modulate [culture] in innovative directions.” Whatever the result, Niles says the best and most creative cooperation that arises between the maysie, the performer, and the audience is accomplished through “wordpower,” which some performers, such as Lizzie Higgins, describe as a kind of magic. “Words,” says Niles,
are not abstractions. They are not just groups of letters calling up concepts … They are things of power, solid parts of the physical world. They can be hard as rocks; that is why they do harm when hurled. They can also be incantatory, resplendent.
I think that what Niles means when he says words are “solid parts of the physical world” is that words affect the physical world as much as and perhaps at times more so than do actual physical materials and their elements working upon each other. Where social concourse is concerned, words, like principles of attraction in gravity, make the world go round, which is the same as saying they make human life possible. Niles speaks of words as being nourishment: “Stories and the social situations in which they are shared were and are better than food “¦ for they fill the spirit and not just the belly.” Thus, a well-worded poet, hosting the muse, “puts food on the table through stories,” not just in the sense that stories feed the dinner guests that have seated themselves at his/her narrative spread but also in the sense that cultures that value stories pay storytellers for the sustenance they provide.
Furthermore, for Niles, not only are stories the “food we set on the table,” they provide a roof over a society’s head:
Storytellers are “¦ the architects and masons of our universe. They build arcs of invisible stone that span huge banquet rooms. They also build the commonplace rooms that shelter us routinely. “¦ [I]t is as when words are exchanged, the society as a whole were breathing in and out.
That is to say, language, operating at full wordpower, sustains life.
When I say in my posts that language ought to be sustainable, Niles’ wonderfully worded passages about language’s creative capacity to provide nourishment and to house people suggest part of what I mean. I read to audiences as often as I can, and personal experience has borne out that performing poetry or lyrical prose even just adequately does indeed tap into language’s nourishing qualities to the point of affecting an audience physically, providing them something they came to the reading in want of. In one case, when I read a writing workshop exercise to the class, the instructor said, “I liked how you read that. It filled me up.” He liked it so much he stole a line to use in a work he published a few years later.
Which brings me to my next point about sustainable language. More than sustaining in the sense of “supplying with adequate, even more than adequate necessities for,” wordpower, blessed with the maysie, travels through the performer to the audience, investing its members with wordpower as well. That is, members of an audience may take a poet’s hearty language into the body of their own language, where they apply it to shaping the stories of their own lives, perhaps creating something altogether new, though directly related to the original experience. Though altered and placed in a different context, that line from that workshop writing exercise is clearly recognizable in that instructor’s book, and his using it provides a good example of what I mean when I say that sustainable language allows members of an audience to make something else or something more of what a writer/performer says, or of what the muse gives rise to between people.
Of course, any literature, whether meant for performance or to be read in solitude, can invoke the maysie and cause things to happen. Niles holds that an oral tradition is superior in that the physical presence of a skilled performer enhances a story’s wordpower. But whether verse is designed to be read aloud or silently, if anything goes wrong with the language on the social end of the storytelling or if poets are unable to make sustainable stories because they can’t work up the wordpower, they will not be able to send through the maysie. Naturally, then, they will lack the skill to read their own writing. When the communal potency of the maysie is shrunk down to indulgence in self-expression or when wordpower slumps to become a plaything or piece of weaponry rather than an investment of power that works upon the world in creative, sustainable ways, then inarticulateness, narrative starvation, and social impotence will result. In short, you will have poetry that, regardless of its potential, can’t shine through a poet’s poorly lit voice, or worse, you’ll get poetry that reduces to rantings, muttering complaints, and linguistic misfirings that will leave an audience wanting ““ poetry that children reciting nursery rhymes will be able to run circles around.
Not every experience reading or listening to a poet perform needs to be as excruciating as Niles describes his was when he listened to Lizzie Higgins sing. But if, as you read aloud to an audience, you hear people groan or gasp or sigh, I submit that’s a good rather than a bad sign. Such audible expressions testify of the maysie’s presence, whatever you like to imagine that the maysie is. The world is starved not just for well-written verse but also for verse that is well-spoken. Audience members who wouldn’t pay much attention to your writing if they encountered it in print sit up and hang on your words if you perform not to showcase talent but rather to get across to them and give them something more than they came in with. It’s a simple matter of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and providing the raw materials people need to make something more of their own stories.
Here is a decent recording of Leslie reading his poem, “Water.” (Click on “Listen to this poem reading by Leslie Norris”.)
Here is a clip from the BYU-produced video Crossing Borders where Leslie describes his writing process. Note how he says he “tests the poem” by reading it aloud. (Click on “The Process of Writing” in the box labeled “Video Clips”.