All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s

By Daniel Kane | Go to book overview

2
Oral Poetics on the Lower East Side

Different Collective Ends

Poets of the Lower East Side directed attention to the function of art in society by reinvigorating the tradition of the poetry reading. Readings were not just public presentations of texts, but events that defined a contemporary avant-garde as they redefined the way poetry was used in contemporary American culture. Amiri Baraka’s description of his writing practice helps us see how a conception of the poem as speech act determined writing: “I don’t mean that I write poems completely the way I’m talking now, although I’m certain that a great deal of my natural rhythm dominates the line, where I break the line of the poem, for instance where I’m breathing, and I have to stop the line to inhale or exhale. I have to break the line there. I’m trying to get closer to the way I sound.”1 Baraka was essentially manifesting Olson’s theorized poetics, in which line breaks are determined by the “natural” rhythms of the individual human body and breath as opposed to a preordained formal template. As long as the reader was part of an interpretive community aware of the significance of breath as it related to composition, the reading of the poem necessarily served to direct part of the reader’s attention to the poet’s situated body. Reading a line with the understanding that the author treated it as a unit equal to his or her particular breath tended to emphasize authorial pres-

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