noncanonical Congo (PoemTalk #26)


Many of us read Vachel Lindsay in school--at least until he was removed from the anthologies. Few of us have heard the recordings of Lindsay performing--not just reading, but truly performing--his poems, "The Congo" most (in)famously. So we PoemTalkers decided to try our hand at the first section of Lindsay's most well-known poem. Al suggests that readers and listeners must attempt to "get past" the obvious racism (even of the opening lines), but Aldon Nielsen takes exception to that formulation, and off we go, exploring the problem and possibilities of this poet's foray--Afrophilic but nonetheless stereotype-burdened--into African sound and, more generally, the performativity of a culture.

Charles Bernstein finds this "one of the most interesting poems to teach," and adds: "[Lindsay] felt there was something deeply wrong with white culture, that it was hung up, ... that it was disembodied, that it was too abstract." All the problems of the poem, Charles notes, remain present when one reads or hears it. It's all there. It's not a "bad example" of something; it makes its own way (or loses its way) in the modern poetic tradition, as it is.

What can Lindsay teach us today? Michelle Taransky is sure that young writers can learn from Lindsay's experiments, and not just in sound--but also in the way he uses marginal directions, which serve as performance (or production) cues. She commends Lindsay for making available to us the realization "that a poem doesn't have to be read in a monotone way....and that they [young poets today] can read a poem in a way that seems appropriate to them at that time."

Aldon doesn't want to "get past" the tension between Lindsay's desire to make a progressive statement and the racist content in the poem; as a whole, this work creates a tension that is "absolutely at the core of American culture." Aldon is hesitant to use the phrase "teachable moment" (which during 2009 has been a phrase that is dulled from facile overuse in the "ongoing conversation" about race) but that--teachability--is about the sum of it: to teach this poem is to gain access to a central American discussion.

Aldon cues up for us an excerpt from Dead Poets Society in which the boarding school boys under the spell of their charismatic English teacher perform "The Congo." We play audio from that moment in the film and discuss it, so be sure to listen all the way to the end.

Lindsay's 1931 reading of "The Congo"--all three parts--is available on our Vachel Lindsay PennSound page. Be sure to have a listen to them, and also to one of our favorites, "The Mysterious Cat". It's 57 seconds of vintage Vachel performance--very nearly a sound poem. Here's a link to the text of the first section of "The Congo."

We at PoemTalk and PennSound are grateful to Nicholas Cave Lindsay, who has, through the Estate of Vachel Lindsay, given us permission to make recordings of the poet available to everyone for free.


on a Dutch roll

We're on a Dutch roll. Now PoemTalk is featured in an article by Erik Lindner in De Groene Amsterdammer (a magazine like The Nation, the smallest of the big magazines in the Netherlands).
"Poem Talk wordt opgenomen in het Writers House in Pennsylvania. Al Filreis nodigt drie dichters uit voor 'a close but not too close reading' van een gedicht waarvan een geluidsopname bestaat, een opname die aan het gesprek voorafgaat en telkens in fragmenten tijdens het gesprek opnieuw herhaald wordt. Het wordt gelukkig geen wedstrijdje interpreteren of etaleren van belezenheid. Door verschillende invalshoeken komt het gedicht niet zozeer 'tot leven' (wat dat betekent zou ik niet weten), wel openbaart het zich. Aan het eind van de uitzending mogen de drie panelleden nog iets leuks aanbevelen."


verspreken, the Dutch PoemTalk

This morning we received a wonderful note from Joost Baars and Matthijs Ponte about a new Dutch version of PoemTalk. Episode number 1 was released on November 23 (yesterday): http://www.versspreken.nl/. They write:
The basic concept is the same, really. Four poets sitting around a table, conveiing a "close but not too close" (a spot on, but for us untranslatable phrase) reading of one single poem. The most important differences are that we focus on new poems, that we do not have any archive (or production budget) and most importantly that the world of Dutch poetry and poetry-critique is so different from the one (or ones) in the USA. The insistence on the act of reading of text, the open way of reading a poem, the diversity of the conversation, the searching, the natural involvement of politics, and the focus on contents instead of reputation - all these things seem to come natural to a lot of poetics in the USA, but they are sometimes hard to come by in the Netherlands.

PoemTalk is I think therefore a kind of an underground hit in the Dutch poetry scene. And it is certainly therefore that we decided the Dutch poetry scene needs something like poemtalk. So that's why we're making VersSpreken right now.


democracy at 10th & A (PoemTalk #25)


Joe Milutis came in from Seattle for this session, and met up with Zack Pieper (wandering eastward from Milwaukee), drove down from northeastern Pennsylvania together and joined Al Filreis, our host, and Erica Kaufman (training southwest from New York) at the Writers House, where it was time to consider a poem that is either specifically about a postage-stamp-sized offbeat haven (the lower East Side of New York of a certain era) or generally about the whole America from which indeed our PoemTalkers gathered. Well, probably both.

Joe calls Alice Notley's "I the People" a poem writing out the "agon in American culture." Zack speculates on why Notley was embarrassed by the title (a remark she makes in introducing it): it's "a gentle parody," Zack offers, "of the way political language abstracts things," but troubling is the general over-use (especially on the Left) of the term "the people" in particular. Al ponders the possibly unambiguous skeptical politics of the title (overt): the title, he contends, is red meat for those who want to see leftist politics here, but the body of the poem is less obviously in the liberal-left rhetorical tradition of talk about democratic rights.

For Zack this is a poem full of things people think when they are walking around during the day, but the result is not mundane. On the contrary, it has a mystical quality. Later, following from this, Erica offers her ideas on how this poem might be taught under the rubric of the New York School of poetry. But right away Erica says its "walking around"-ness is an aspect of the poem she particularly likes: a glimpse at routine thoughts while at the same time a political commentary on the possessive and on the subject.

"I the People" is a poem that makes one wonder: Which comes first in American democracy, the "I" or the "we"? Joe notes that while these are "the two ends of the problem," the vast middle ground between "I" and "we" is both intimate and fraught.

The book in which this poem was collected is titled Parts of a Wedding and the PoemTalkers appropriately consider the mentioned wedding. Joe tries out a (as it were) pedestrian psycho-geographical reading of the spot the poem seems to occupy - at 10th & A. There's a church there. A wedding is letting out? Erica is asked if this specific geography makes the poem more or less alluring to you, and observes that it could be read of a satire of what you gain when you're married. The certain rights and certain status. And thus we are back to the rights-stipulating Preamble. 10th & A, in one sense, is an exception to the way America has interpreted the Constitution's opening words. It is perhaps where democracy "gets really realized" at the level of the body. Zack is sure that in the poem "personal vision and its realization will out-ride any mode of political abstraction." It's a poem about feeling the democratic power of the personal while not shirking the ideological imperative.

Our recording of the poem is from Alice Notley's reading at Buffalo in 1987. Notley's PennSound author page includes four full readings and dozens of individual poems. And here is the text of the poem.

Our director and engineer for PT#25 is James LaMarre and our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. Above, from left to right: Joe Milutis, Zack Pieper, Erica Kaufman.