Academic journal article Style

"What If I Sang": The Intonation of Allen Ginsberg's Performances

Academic journal article Style

"What If I Sang": The Intonation of Allen Ginsberg's Performances

Article excerpt

It is difficult to overstate the importance of performance in Allen Ginsberg's vision of his own poetry. In the introductory booklet for the Allen Ginsberg Audio Collection, Steven Taylor points to the economic and aesthetic motives behind Ginsberg's performances:

   Allen had to perform. To begin with there was the economic reality
   of his profession-he proved it was possible to be world famous and
   not be able to live on your royalties. He gave thousands of
   readings during his career, deriving most of his income from these
   performances. Also, his poetics expressed a classical aesthetic in
   the sense that art must be of the body, so the poem ... is a
   transfer of energy on the breath, the page is a score, and the
   music's the thing. (9)

Performance was important to Ginsberg not just economically and spiritually but politically. He often used the performance of poetry as a way to criticize what he saw as injustice. In South Korea in 1990, for example, forbidden to criticize the government's policy of imprisoning poets who had gone to North Korea to read poetry and talk to President Kim I1 Sung, he spontaneously composed poetry on stage to circumvent this prohibition and to express his opinion that such censorship was a violation of human rights (Spontaneous Mind 536-37).

The beginning of Ginsberg's career of performance came on 7 October 1955, when he read an early version of Howl at Six Gallery. Bill Morgan describes the importance of this event:

   The Six Gallery reading created an instant buzz in the San
   Francisco literary community. It wasn't the first poetry reading of
   that era, but it was the first time that new poets had come forward
   as a group with work that pointed to a possible revolution of
   political and social consciousness. It heralded the coalescence of
   the East and West Coast Poets into a movement that would change the
   course of American poetry forever. (209)

The effects of this coalescence can still be seen not only in literary publications but in poetry slams and other contemporary performances of amateur and professional poetry. Billy Collins suggests that the popularity of performed poetry may be due, in part, to a desire to return to orality, to feel "a relief from the isolation of print" (4). Given the prevalence of such poetry and the role of Ginsberg in its development, research on his performance potentially may establish a foundation for research on a large body of work.

Although it is now impossible to have an unmediated experience of Ginsberg reading his poetry, a large number of recordings exist, providing opportunities for studying his performance. Yet germinal studies of Ginsberg, such as that by Thomas Merrill and even the more sympathetic study of the Beats in general by John Tytell rarely address performance itself, approaching the poems as textual objects. Because performance is central to Ginsberg's aesthetic, it is important to consider his poetry not only as a collection of textual objects but also as performances. Audio recordings of particular performances allow the investigation of elements that become lost in written text, such as voice intonation. As Taylor writes, Ginsberg's written poems are "scores" and ultimately "the music's the thing" (9). Examining Ginsberg's performances reveals that he uses intonation as a poetic element, for both metrical and iconic effects. This observation has implications not only for studies of Ginsberg and performance but also for theories of intonation. First, it reveals that Ginsberg's poetry specifically, and potentially many other poets' works, must be regarded not only as written texts but in specific performance contexts. Doing so raises textual complications, of course: which performance is considered authoritative? Are two performances with very different intonation to be regarded as different poems? Does observation of performance apply only to poets who perform their poetry? …

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