Friday, October 19, 2007

On Recitation

Just ran across this, from the scholar and editor Jerome McGann:

As we know, students—most ordinary and intelligent people, for that matter—imagine poems are difficult, full of deep meanings that have to be deciphered. It’s our fault that this dismal and quite mistaken view prevails. We’ve imagined that our proud schools of criticism have more to show us than the poetry itself. Above every poem we "teachers" have inscribed a hellish warning: Abandon hope, all you who enter here.

As Gertrude Stein would say, we've got to begin again at the beginning, which is where poetry always locates itself anyway.


The poem is a musical score written in our mother tongue. Our bodies are the instruments it was made for. Perform:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is. . . . Be thou me, impetuous one.

The poem will obey if you pay attention to what you’re doing. Its mechanisms aren't difficult, even if they are amazingly flexible. They are as natural to us as speaking and singing. We learned them before we knew them, on the banks of the Derwent, in our mother’s or our nurse’s arms.

The basic structure is like a double helix—one strand is linguistic—a syntax and a semantics—the other is prosodic, made of rhythmical and acoustic units (metre and rhyme). We practice to discover their synchrony. The two play off each other, and while every poem permits a personal inflection of its elements, your freedom is constrained. That constraint is telling you to pay attention to what you're doing.

When you set out to perform a poem, you don’t proceed willy-nilly. You try it out and test its possibilities. There will always be multiple possibilities. Eventually, in the act itself, you’ll have to make a performance decision. When you do that you'll have something else to look at and think about. What was good about what you did, what wasn't. And so you can begin again.

As Gertrude Stein says, beginning again and again.

Postlapsarian Note: In my experience, many difficulties of meaning disappear when students begin to construct and perform recitations. Indeed, only then do many other significant difficulties of meaning begin to reveal themselves. (Perhaps in poetry we're always working to find those beginnings.) Recitation compels you to give a specific shape to the text's linguistic and prosodic relations. They can't speak the words until your mouth, your lungs, and—indeed—your whole body understands how to give them articulate shape so that someone else will also understand. It's not hard to do but it does take practice. And you have to pay attention. And the more you do it, the better you get.

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