The Performing and the Performed: Performance Writing and Performative Reading  

by Robert Sheppard


1: The Saying and the Said

The binary terms Emmanuel Levinas uses to express ethical dialogue following his linguistic turn of the 1960s—the saying and the said—seem to be particularly pertinent to modes of poetry that keep the literal saying of performance open as opposed to the apparent fixity of the silent page. Performance as a valorised notion in the discourse of recent Linguistically Innovative Poetry is interrogated in this paper in the light of Levinas’ distinction, which he delineated succinctly: 

Language as saying is an ethical openness to the other; as that which is said— reduced to a fixed identity or synchronized presence—it is an ontological closure of the other.1

Saying is the call of, the call to, the other, and the fact of the need and obligation to respond to, and become responsible for, the other, in Levinas’ difficult thinking.2 It is a transcendental state beyond being, yet it is also “a performative doing” as Simon Critchley puts it.3 It is the site and performance of ethics because of the obligation to respond. It is public, yet it doesn’t communicate anything but the desire to communicate. Thus explained it seems like a philosophical version of interhuman phatic communion that precedes, or even replaces, actual informational communication. Indeed Levinas has indicated that passing the time of day about the weather may embody such a gesture. As he explains: “Saying opens me to the other before saying what is said.”4 We cannot, as in his everyday example, but not reply (even with silence).

However—and this is where the complexity for poetics enters this dichotomy—we cannot simply valorise saying as performance over the said as non- or anti-performance; the saying is not found other than interwoven with the said. Robert Eaglestone explains:

It is impossible to say the saying because at the moment of saying it becomes the said, betrayed by the concrete language which is the language of ontology. The saying, which is unthematizable, impossible to delimit, becomes limited, thematized, said.5

Yet the saying as a “performative doing,”6 is what interrupts the said, ruptures the said. The saying “appears” as a knot catching in the thread of the said, yet conversely, “The said...arises in the saying.”7 It is the point at which “clarity occurs, and thought aims at themes.”8

The saying and the said both support, yet react against, one another.

When poetry is successful it is arguably able to articulate that saying in the said of the dialogic performance of the book. A successful reading will be one that exposes the saidness of the text to an openness of performance

Given that there is already a pun here on the word “reading” as both the act of silent reading and on the kinds of public performance that have been relatively popular since the 1950s, is telling. Given that the former is, in these terms, also a mode of performative action, the specificity of the latter is under question, is in need of justification.


2: Love Letters in the Sound

A poetry reading or performance by Maggie O’Sullivan can baffle or delight, baffle and delight. The steady stream of words, delivered with careful attention to their rhythmic weight, to their alliterative connections, seemingly at the expense of their meanings, can be a difficult experience to relate to, for those not used to it. In “A Love Letter,” Adrian Clarke, becomes Roland Barthes’ blissful reader, finding himself desired by a text from her 1993 Reality Street book, In the House of the Shaman. He explained:

For those of us who have attended any of her readings, these pages summon Maggie—never one to function as the institution “author,” rather a figure “lost in the midst of a text”—whose striking if not conventionally beautiful dark Irish features are transformed, transfused with beauty as she reads unhurriedly letting the measured syllables relate to establish rhythms in an appropriate time.9

This poetry demands a greater dialogue with, response from, its readers than most. The reader or listener has to be prepared for a structure that is largely organized by sound and has to pay attention to the particular and peculiar lineation, spacing and punctuation on the page. The connection between the powerful sonic features and a revitalized semantics is precisely through her preference for the portmanteau word and the pun. Neologism is so complete that at times we are offered a controlled experiment in language change. O’Sullivan changes the endings of words and changes their case, something which takes centuries in ‘natural’ language: “missingly”; “yonderly”; “gived.”10 She invents new lexical items, some fairly simple, “twindom” as a doubled domain,11 but others approach the polysemenous Joycean pun: “superates”; “reversionary.”12  New compounds surprise: “Sylla/bled” takes a word apart, and emphasizes utterance as suffering, sliced on enjambment, uniquely connected to breathing.13

Derek Attridge writes in Peculiar Language that this particular form of linguistic inventiveness, the portmanteau word, “refuses, by itself, any single meaning, and in reading we have to nudge it towards other signifiers whose meanings might prove appropriate.”14

Thus sound, or soundings, the performative aspect of the poetry, opens the reader, through semantics (and the semantic suggestions of grammatical units, such as prefixes, and, by extension, through etymological roots), to conceptual richness. Attridge, writing of lexical onomatopoeia, deals with this single form of neologism in a way which emphasizes this, and is relevant to the devices and techniques of O’Sullivan’s work.

All speech involves muscular movements…and the particular aspects of this complex physical process which function in a given example of onomatopoeia depend less on the specific configurations of the phonetic sequence in question than on the meaning of the passage. The result is a diversion of attention away from the referent in itself to the activity of referring carried out by language…And it is that focus of attention upon the materiality of language as it does its work of bringing meaning into being that has so often been interpreted as mimetic or iconic representation, because the experience is unquestionably one of increased vividness or intensity of signification.15

The reader has to recognize a moment which resembles language being born rather than language being used to represent something, the moment saying exists without regard to the said which will finally capture it. It is not consciousness that the reader sees unfolding, as in the Joycean stream of consciousness technique. It is almost as if an ideolect, a personal register of language, becomes a loose sociolect that the audience temporarily shares, nudging away at the lexical items, entering it in social dialogue. This is never more so than in the communal space of a public reading where the saying may be literally kept open (but, as I shall argue, may not always be open in a Levinasian sense). 

The process of writing these poems might best be thought of as a series of transformations of descriptive language into exuberant and performative language, a transformation that is fully aware that the material of poetry is not perception—however important—but language. There is a strange tension in the literary influences—late Romantic and extreme Modernist—on Maggie O’Sullivan’s work, which reflects the tensions within it. Like Hopkins, sound seems to function as onamatapoeaic equivalence of “all things hitting the sense with double but direct instress” as he put it, to match the perceptual imprint of “great brilliancy and projection” of phenomenal nature, which strikes the eye before it is transformed into sound: “the eye seemed to fall perpendicular from level to level along our trees, the nearer and further Park.”16

Yet Kurt Schwitters’ use of detritus and mistakes in his visual collages, as well as pure sound in his poetry, such as the extended Ur Sonate, as O’Sullivan puts it, “showed the retrieval of potentials within materials,”17 pointed towards the medium itself, towards “saying saying saying” as Levinas attempts to describe it. 18

As this poetry passes from precision to exuberance, it attempts to link the verbal equivalence of Hopkins and the artistic autonomy of Schwitters, but with Schwitters’ admission of error and mistake into the creative process, as the richness of pun: a kind of communal hallucinatory malapropism.


3: The Naming and the Named

O’Sullivan’s “Naming,” comes from a section of In The House of the Shaman, called “Kinship with Animals.” Its epigraph—and indeed, the title of the volume—is drawn from Joseph Beuys, the German installation and performance artist. O’Sullivan describes working on the BBC Arena programme on Beuys in the late eighties, appropriately, as a “transformative experience.”19 It is no wonder that Beuys, who also grappled with these tensions between a fidelity to nature amid the creation of cultural artefacts, should be such an ethical figure for O’Sullivan. The only way to make language shift like the lard that Beuys transformed is to work with the instability within the linguistic sign, “underneath, behind, with language,” as Maggie O’Sullivan says.20 This materiality engenders a paradoxical freedom to transform, something found in Beuys’ lard sculptures. The epigraph provides the necessary philosophic stance for O’Sullivan’s balancing and fusing, even confusing, of natural processes and cultural materialism:

To stress the idea of transformation and of substance. This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic.21

“Naming,”22 whose emphatic last line is “This is called fish,” is certainly not pure music, but it does not offer the certainties of denotation that it might seem to promise. “Water/they unlidder” the poem begins, refusing yet to name, offering a half rhyme for “water,” the element upon which the poem focuses. To unlid something would be to remove its lid, to open; lidder would seem to be also a noun, but operates as a verb here, and makes the act of “unliddering” seem, through sound, through grammar, a very deliberate one: opening the perceptive eyes perhaps as the lids part, though it seems more violent, to rip the lids away for permanent seeing, though it is the water’s surface the unnamed “they” peel away. (If they are fish, they have no lids themselves, of course.) The water’s surface is also broken by the named and noisy “scraping fowls.”

shrieve hurtled
suffixes — Dots. Dashes. Scraping fowls
                      Unescourted, Blade Goes Them
                                  from a far orange —

In the sound of the word “shrieve” one can hear the “hurtling” of the birds, as in Hopkins’ onomatapoaeic “the whole landscape flushes on a sudden at a sound.”23 But the Old English etymology of the word points to an act of confession, the Latin to the act of writing. Together they suggest a document as a testament. The bird’s natural motion becomes a cultural inscription, or is seen in terms of one. Wings and pieces of paper can both be folded, both are possible concealments, of that which is confessed. The scraping on the water is an hieroglyphics of sorts, cut with a blade that could be a fowl’s wing, hence the parts of words and dots and dashes, the disturbance on water.  This act of descriptive precision is turning into a description of a Maggie O’Sullivan poem, into its own material saying, the abruptness of its own punctuation, its sudden suffixes.



To name a dragon, italicised “DRAGON,” is to evoke its presence, yet the “plum-BURR/plum-BURR” of its fiery breath or leathern wing (in which may be heard the punned the “hum-WHIRR” of its lesser namesake the dragonfly) is echoed in the triple, chant-like, charm-like, human chorus of

Be come.
Be spoke.
Be eared.

The interrupted prefixes (matching the suffixes earlier in the poem) emphasize the Be-ing of their imperatives: for existence, for speech (with perhaps a bespoke sense of quality) and—the third a characteristic O’Sullivan neologism—attentive listening (and attentive listening to the word will reveal the word “beard,” a name of certain wild flowers). As she asserts elsewhere, uniting the three aspects in the activities of an “I”: “lip drove I eared” and “Ear-Loads I Sing!” 24 Whether or not we are in the presence of a dragon’s breath, there is an “ear-Load” more of transformation in the phrase or word “plum-BURR”: plumage be-comes plum, cut down. Plum is a colour, BURR a sound, a choke in the throat. Plum is a fruit, also, and burr, through another definition, the seed case of the fruit; these connotations stress an interchangeable yet changing natural environment.

The first five letters of the mysterious “plum-BURR” also spell “plumb” in the sense of measuring the depth of water, whether lidded or not, which the poem enacts. Be eared, the poem seems to say, to the polysemantics of nature: colour and fruition; be kin to animals (because we are akin, as the title of the section reminds us). But the semantics are held off by the thick devicehood of the poem, its saying glorified in the act of being born in our reading, and dying only slowly into the thematized fixity of our interpretations, particularly as we follow words through their etymologies and connotations. As a reader follows such semantic trails he or she must retreat from the actual performance of the poem, a paradox to which I shall return.


4: The Word Made Flesh

“Naming” asserts its “kinship with animals” in its evanescent precision and etymological play. If this is description then the objects described are largely displaced. It is instructive to see how O’Sullivan herself deals with this dichotomy between linguistic autonomy and reference to the natural world, in her poetics essay “riverruning (realisations” which itself is a collage of quotations from her own, and others’, works, and from a number of intentional and autobiographical statements, in which she amplifies upon influences and tensions identified earlier. On the one hand she speaks of Kurt Schwitters’ “superb use of the UN—the NON and the LESS—the UNREGARDED, the found, the cast-offs, the dismembered materials of culture.”24 Again, Hopkins provides the balance to Schwitters, since O’Sullivan speaks, in tones reminiscent of Hopkins’ theory of instress, of her leaving London “to the moorland impress of tongue.”25 “In celebration of this, I praised the trees & hugged & planted them—to make a mood—a spirit of the woods in Celtic imagination where the whole world was alive.” 26

Again, only Beuys (who was similarly fascinated by the Celtic) could also have straggled this divide convincingly and it is interesting to see “riverruning (realisations” failing to resolve the tension between the cultural and the natural. The force of the word “Also” in this passage separates these concerns.

The works I make Celebrate ORigins/Entrances—the
Materiality of Language: its actual contractions &
expansions, potentialities, prolongments, assemblages—
the acoustic, visual, oral & sculptural qualities
within the physical:    intervals between; in & beside.
Also, the jubilant seep    In So of Spirit—Entanglement
with vegetations, thronged weathers, puppy-web we agreed
animals.   Articulations of the Earth of Language    that is
Minglement, Caesura, Illumination.
Heart. 27

As the processes of the natural world lead to the evolutionary changes, in what we call natural history, the changes of language (either real in etymology in the history of the language, or new in the neologistic play of the text), lead to changes in the poem’s language. Her work embodies that “Also” that connects the two. But it is the embodiment that explains how Maggie O’Sullivan imagines the Also to be an And.

The link, of course, is in the materiality of the literary work and the physicality of nature: “Articulations of the Earth of Language,” “a Mattering of Materials,” 28 where “mattering” hints at both material reality and signification; materials are no longer simply cultural. But there is more than just an equivalence here, and the roles of sound in language and language in the body need exploring with reference to performance itself.

If text in performance is a version of shamanistic therapy, how is it administered? The answer may lie in Adrian Clarke’s assertion that it is O’Sullivan’s person—her body—that is transformed as she reads the texts, and in Attridge’s remarks about the muscular aspects of signification.

Bakhtin’s early essay “Content, Material, and Form in Verbal Art,” focuses, rarely for Bakhtin, upon poetry, and argues that the transformation of material into architectonics, of technique into aesthetic object, and the making of the poem, “allows the author-creator to become a constitutive moment of form.”29 “The feeling of verbal activeness, the feeling of the active generation of signifying sound” is the governing moment of poetry, a moment that could happen on the page, (the irruption of thingness, as I call it) but I believe is particularly re-created and fulfilled in performance; 30 it is “a moment into which both the organism and meaning-directed activity are drawn, because both the flesh and the spirit [the signifier and the signified I take him to mean] are generated together in this concrete unity.”31

Theory may have recently seen the re-birth of the author, but not yet, I think, as performer, but Bakhtin points towards ways of achieving that: “The movement that generates acoustical sound, and is most active in the articulatory organs, although it takes hold of the whole incommensurably more important than what is heard,” not in a retreat from meaning, but because the poem has “taken possession of the whole active human being.”32 This literal incarnation, at the moment that poetic language comes into being is what O’Sullivan achieves when she turns ideolect to a kind of dialect. Her “Earloads” are becoming physical burdens, for the performer-poet, as in Bakhtin’s formulation of the lyric, “when the body, generating the sound from within itself and feeling the unity of its own productive exertion, is drawn into form.”33 This birth of language (a metaphor which unites nature and culture) is indeed a glorification of productive exertion in the body: the word made flesh. It is also the most poignant example of a saying that pre-empts the power of the said.

I believe that what the exuberance of O’Sullivan’s work—particularly its sonic performance—is trying to do is to find a further productive unity: one between culture and nature—to replicate the productive exertion of the natural forces she celebrates. Kinship with animals implies making the poem a part of organic nature, which is only possible through sound, articulated through the living body of the poet, in writing, but more publicly, in the dialect become sociolect of performance. The performance of poetry is the “Be-coming” of the text.

The hallucinatory ideolect of the O’Sullivan performance may engender temporary modalities of being, of creating, in its own way, what Felix Guattari called “mutant subjectivities” for the audience, that constitute a “preliminary deconstruction of the structures and codes in use and a chaosmic plunge into the materials of sensation. Out of them a recomposition becomes possible,” says Guattari. 34

How can the ideolect-cum-dialect of any poetry performance become a shared sociolect? I believe that Guattari’s reading—re-writing—of the Bakhtin essay provides one theoretical answer. In Chaosmosis he identifies Bakhtin’s sense of the verbal activity which gives autonomy to content and engenders activity in the author and audience with his own notion of the “ritornello” or “refrain.”

A refrain is a detached existential motif which orders chaos and assists the process of subjectivation. His examples of the refrain range from enabling and territorial birdsong through to the condition of an individual watching the TV, where his or her subjectivity is polyphonized by existing at the intersections of disparate experiences on and off the screen. The refrain “acts upon that which surrounds it, sound or light, extracting from its various vibrations or decompositions, projections, transformations.”35 It ruptures the dominant redundancies and catalyses their re-combination in a sort of multidimensional epiphany. The refrain function in Maggie O’Sullivan’s text and performance is this very exuberant creation of temporary dialect, or even sociolect, the sensation of linguistic activity of which Bakhtin speaks, the catalysing of what feels like meaning being created, doubly, through sound, through the specialized semantics of neologism. Indeed, Guattari says that performance art engenders a process of existential detachment and disordering which is then supplemented by existential recomposition of the fragments for the audience.

Poetry in performance, whatever its tensions, can be argued to be the production of a productivity: always of machinic combinations of different elements of poetic language and performance events.36 Catalyzing changes in both authors and readers could potentially assist, in a new aesthetic paradigm of experience, the individual and collective means of producing healthily polyphonic subjectivities, capable of achieving autonomy or “autopoesis,” as Guattari would say. “Thus it is not only in the context of music and poetry that we see the work of such fragments detached from content...the polyphony of modes of subjectivation actually corresponds to a multiplicity of ways of ‘keeping time.’ Other rhythmics are thus led to crystallize existential assemblages.”37


5: Performance Writing as Genre

The emergent practice of performance writing has developed out of the performance contexts of British poetry in the 1970s and 1980s, and is usefully documented by Iain Sinclair’s 1996 anthology, from which I shall select three examples. The anthology also contains the work of O’Sullivan. 38 Performance writing seems to have found an institutional home at Dartington College of the Arts in Devon. Aaron Williamson, for a while a research fellow there, is clearly one such performer, witnessed by Susan de Muth of the Independent in 1995:

When he bursts through the glass doors, it is like an explosion of noise. People step back, tread on each others’ toes, stumble; we’re assaulted by the violent cacophony of his roaring, screaming, jibbering, weeping and moaning.39

Indeed “Cacophonies” is the title of one sequence excerpted in Conductors Of Chaos.  The poems are exacting explorations of the condition of profound deafness. Possibly Williamson can just about hear his words, but the audience often cannot clearly discern them as Williamson begins:

Stamping so that the floorboards resound, Williamson strikes a balletic pose and suddenly, from the echoes of this aural anarchy, brings forth a serene and lucid stream of poetry. The feedback from his wayward hearing aid produces an eerie accompaniment which could be the music of the spheres. Some people cry. The experience is overwhelming.40  

When Williamson says, “The words themselves, the modes of saying, are as significant as meaning,” he is opening up his practice to “a more physical currency of accord” that would try to avoid thematizing the text by re-casting it in a more performative mode.41 On the page the “Cacophony” is a text of misheard “confused loads,” of corrections (“yes that one”), and the existentially chilling, “you’ve lost me” of the deaf. The text stutters, tongue-tied, breaks up language, lards the interstices between words with other words, word-parts and anagram, uses enjambment to prise open lexical items (in a manner reminiscent of Maggie O’Sullivan) and suggests performance in its notation; it already seems to have been talked through.

uses contingent on con-
-tract, facts tussle ’twist centre and
everywidewhere ELSEWISE
or “role,” or “participant”
“lore,” “rawstate,” “poor”
litigant, COMP
-pet-eat-height-or, MANAGERing—birthing
as U-Factor (CC 482)

The nature of identity, of the “U,” and the “participating hazards” of identifying with a centre that seems defined by laws rather than roles and lores is contrasted to the “everywidewhere” of elsewhere. Between these extremes, the facts, like the text in performance, tussles. 

The similarly centred lines of “Stranger” by cris cheek look so fixed upon the page that it is a surprise to hear performance variations on his own Skin Upon Skin studio CD, released in 1996.42 Indeed one can hear the process of word transformation, as “tactic” becomes “tic tac” in the passage below, and one can then see how “stranger” became “stringer” in the printed text. The text used for this performance has itself been processed, first by oral improvisation upon tape, then written transcription, before being designed meticulously upon a computer screen before publication and subsequent transformative performances.

Yet “Stranger” is also a meditation upon estrangement and alienation, focussing at times on the island of Madagascar, sometimes on its own processes and orderings. The recasting of Felicia Hemans’ famous lines of maritime catastrophe is only one of the most obvious verbal transformations, one which introduces the theme of nomadic movement:

The toy stood on the turning Wreck
Of climax and Closure.
To distract from a diversionary

Because to sequence the modern and get it “right” in that
Sequence is not Necessarily order, right?

To distract from a diversionary modern tic tac
Or there isn’t time for letters and you can’t afford to phone—country road
-     Going home. (CC 35)

Vocal techniques—breathing and throat sounds (reminiscent of the sound poetry of Henri Chopin), half-singing, full song (as in the lines from the country song above)—are heard against an intermittent chant and violin drone. The intonation patterns are not those of ordinary speech. Such effects are improvised from the text (or some variant) and range between the mimetic (the quoted song) and the random (sudden dips of tone or squeaky falsettos). The “text” itself is also its performance and its subsequent transformations. The risk is that it might be performed or re-inscribed in less, as well as more, interesting ways, that climax and closure might not become integrated. But the text itself poses a question that (given its serial transformation) is oddly rhetorical among such transitions.

“Now—is poetry then
a process of arresting
or of Moving?” (CC 36)

If we equate arrest with the Levinasian said and movement with the saying, this poetry opts for the constant promise of re-invention imposed by the transformations. But the poetry of moving must embrace the arrest (which is only a rest) in the material text upon the page, and even as sound traces on the CD.

Sinclair’s anthology also showcases Bergvall’s splendidly funny, typographically extravagant, post-porn (“leg over”) (CC 6) piece for two “kissers”: (“come legs over legs suck armpits with tongue / come legs over neck press belly on butt”) (CC 7 ). The accompanying marginal gloss reads: “on remembering one’s past suddenly”(CC 7). It is this bodily memory of sexual experience that informs what Drew Milne has called her “queer poetics.”43 The text (it is not easy to see what performance would unravel from the page) ends:

muscle-constructions do the archaeology of sex in one hundred and twenty situations [the text is entitled In Situ] and ah ah where you have just come from disperses in the growing background: so I’ll ask you once again what do you remember of what you know. (CC 10)

In 1996 Caroline Bergvall delivered a keynote paper at a conference concerning performance at Dartington College. The questions she asks about the “concerted excavation of the intradisciplinarity of much textual work” push the possible boundaries of what might be considered performance well beyond the three examples above: 44

Is it not Performance Writing to site some text in a space or on

a wall or on electronic boards?...Is it not Performance Writing to treat spoken writing as part of a sound composition....Is it not Performance Writing to inscribe words on a canvas, spray them on a wall, layer text into photographs or carve them into wood, steel or other solids...? to use text as part of a body-related piece...?  to bleed a word into flesh...? Is it not Performance Writing to generate text for the page...? 45

To include under this rubric, writing “activated for and through a stage, for and through a site, a time-frame, a performer’s body, the body of a voice or the body of a page” authorizes experimentation in dozens of ways out from writing, but simultaneously directs attention to a kind of total artifice that emphasizes the materiality of any aspect of language and its propagation, since

everything about a piece of work is active and carries meaning. Any treatment, any font, any blank, any punctuation, any intonation, any choice of materials, any blob, however seemingly peripheral to the work, is part of the work, carries it, opens it up, closes it in, determines it.46

Williamson, cheek and Bergvall herself have explored performing with musicians and dancers, but also have investigated site-specific installation work, and cheek has been exploring hybrid forms of writing.47 Theirs is a stance which acknowledges that writing itself is performance, which is at once liberating and limiting, for the question has to be asked: what will not be performance? If everything is performance, then what specific value does this category have?

Ignoring these questions for a moment, one could argue that performance that includes poetry, particularly in an expanded context such as an environment or an installation piece, such as that discussed by Bergvall, or cris cheek’s recordings, is a machinic productivity out from text, alongside texts, into texts, in a flexible multisystemic activity, and its aims are, as Guattari would say, indeed did say, of performance art: “a forward flight into machinations and deterritorialized machinic paths capable of engendering mutant subjectivities...a proliferation not just of forms but of modalities of being.”48  In such a formulation, tensions and contradictions are not problems but productive complexities with a role that is not exclusively literary.

To theorize performance in terms of Deleuzoguattarian machinic productivity suggests an irreversible, unpredictable activity, but it also avoids certain ways of thinking that might prioritise combined media in a live art context, or relationships between elements, or impose models of unity, such as metaphors of fusion, synthesis, organic wholeness, or counterpoint. To think of the elements as machines allows for the development of simultaneous, asymmetric processes, of finding the work in performance, of finding unprescribed relationships or even lacks of relationship. Finally this suggests both the transformation of all the possible elements and their potential breakdown as performance develops.

Perhaps once this stage has been reached it is no longer possible to speak of poetry as an autonomous art-form. On one’s attachment to the particularities of the art-form—its linguistic complexity, its etymological richness, which are so important in O’Sullivan’s text, for example—will depend one’s response to such hybrid productivity.


5:  The Reading and the Read

The liberation of text from the page, and ever widening definitions put “performance” as a term squarely at the heart of Linguistically Innovative Poetry. For so long it has been assumed, particularly in the Pound-Olson tradition that the supposed connection between verse and music (and dance) subsisted until the Renaissance and was undone by the rise of  “print-bred poetry” as Olson put it, with its practice of silent solitary reading: “What we have suffered from, is manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer, the voice, a removal...from its place of origin and its destination.”49

Until recently less attention has been directed towards what may have been gained rather than lost in such developments, particularly in the ways trained readers respond to the page. To use the term “audience” (rather than reader) might be thought a neutral term, but to privilege the auditory to is underplay other aspects of poetic artifice. For one, we need to consider, to use the deceptively simple title of a recent book, “the look of it.”50 Olson, of course, sang the praises of the typewriter, though chiefly as a scoring device for breath performance. O’Sullivan’s texts use space meticulously, not just as a score for performance—that would render such meaningful artifice secondary, less meaningful—but as a primary field for the play of devices. Her work is an example of what Marjorie Perloff calls “the new nonlinear poetries” that have extended the range of so-called free verse, which she has also argued is itself primarily a visual, not a rhythmical, ordering.51

“Naming” is a conservative, linear, poem, by O’Sullivan’s standards, though even here, where the materiality of language is emphasized (those dots, dashes and suffixes) the lines are indented. The “plum-BURR” repeated thrice, is indented, visually isolated (as is the last line, as I have said). It is as though, in order to consider the range of connotations this lexical item contains, in order to open up the realm of the saying it inaugurates, we must stop, or pause, the different saying of performance. The reader needs to hold dialogue, to mentally scribble in the white space, to allow the semantics of neologism, its avenues of connotation, to unfold.

Indeed, there may be aspects of sound in poetry that operate in a non-performative way, or in a way that re-defines performance. The problem of my theoretical use of the concepts of the saying and the said (despite my re-definitions in terms of reading and the read, even naming and the named) is that saying suggests oral performance while the said suggests a page-based reception of text. I am aware that Bergvall’s descriptions of performance writing indicate more than the verbal, but she emphasizes the textual as the starting point.

Christopher Middleton has theorized a discrimination of “voices” in the poetic text that is relevant here, and suggests another way of theorizing Bakhtin’s sense of the author’s autopoesis, one which questions the performance and the performed. There exists “an imaginary voice, a voice that was launched by his [the poet’s], but one that has a distinct imprint. That imaginary and unmistakeable voice is a kind of endophone.”52 This is not to be confused with “the exophones or voices with which we speak and to which we listen under ordinary conditions.”53 More importantly, while the endophone is “time-traversing” the time of performance imposes limitations, supplies simplifications, along with its undoubted permissions.54

Performances can raise such sound-sequences into profile. Actual vocalizing, unless it is vitiated by histrionics, can nourish the inner ear’s competence to pick up and assemble sequences. Yet the inner ear is capable of an auditory complexity which exceeds almost any audible vocalizing: the latter tends to be reductive, if not falsifying, also it may straighten out shocks and distortions which, to the inner ear, are part of the real thing that is the voice in the text and the delight of the text.55

Middleton offers a counterbalance to the author-centred reading, or any verbal performance, which again places dialogue with the reader at the centre of aesthetic exchange, the reading acting as the “other” of the read.

It could be argued that it is the act of silent, or at most murmured reading ...which can realize the vocal qualities of a text, the sequences of sounds, the timbres, the tonal colourings. That kind of act, reading from a page... can also dwell on patterns of sound, as they exfoliate and intertwine, so as to arrive at a fullbodied perception of the relations (phonic, semantic, syntagmatic) which are being voiced here and now in the text.56

Performance may feel ontologically represssive if the condition of saying inherent in a text may only fully be realized by a reader in dialogue with the text, unfolding its sounds in the variable temporalities that reading and memory allow, a virtual performance of an endophone separate from the actualities (however well performed) of the author’s (or other performers’) exophones.57 It is when the to and fro of this virtual reading, this arrest of temporal sequencing, is lost that performance might be thought to remove a vital empowerment of the reader. Whatever other machinic senses of catalytic change performance and live art may engender, it will be a different empowerment, as I have suggested above, one that might leave the potentialities of poetic artifice behind. My insistence upon a poetry that foregrounds its saying as against its said may be more fully present in the kinds of endophonic reading proposed by Middleton, during which the visual and the aural, the performative and the semantic, work together in the reader-controlled temporality of reception. We need to acknowledge the private performance of the silent reader, or near silent reader murmuring, opening the text to its spectral saying on the saidness of the material page. Indeed, is this not another site for experiencing the Deleuzzoguattarian refrain?  It is the challenge for those working in performance with text—and O’Sullivan, Williamson, cheek and Bergvall have been highlighted here as exemplars—to keep that dialogic aspect of poetry alive, even if it no longer calls itself poetry.


1  Emmanuel Levinas, “Ethics of the Infinite,” interview with the editor in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers, ed. Richard Kearney (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984), 65.

2  See the Introduction to my The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents 1950-2000 (forthcoming: Liverpool UP) for a fuller account of this Levinasian poetics, along with its connection to a postmodern poetics of indeterminacy and suspended naturalization, and an account of a social comprehension of poetic form in Bakhtinian terms.

Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 7.

4  The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 183.

5  Robert Eaglestone, Ethical Criticism, Reading After Levinas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997), 147.

6  Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction, 7.

7  Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981), 46.

8  Ibid., 46.

9  Adrian Clarke, ‘A Love Letter’, Responses 6, nd (circa 1991), n.pag.

10  Maggie O’Sullivan, In the House of the Shaman (London and Cambridge: Reality Street Editions, 1993), 59, 41, 61.

11  Ibid., 55.

12  Ibid., 54, 55.

13  Ibid., 61.

14  Derek Attridge, Peculiar Language: Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce (London: Methuen, 1988), 201.

15  Ibid., 153-4.

16 Gerald Manley Hopkins: A Selection of his Poems and Prose, ed. WH Gardner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953), 122.

17  Maggie O’Sullivan, “riverrunning (realisations,” West Coast Line 17 (1995): 68.

18  Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 143.

19 O’Sullivan, “riverrunning (realisations,” 68.

20 “A Talk Concerning Edges of Her Work (with Adrian Clarke),” Angel Exhaust, 6 (Winter 1986): 13.

21 O’Sullivan, In the House of the Shaman, 28.

22 “Naming” may be found in O’Sullivan, In the House of the Shaman, 32.

23 Gerald Manley Hopkins: A Selection of his Poems and Prose, 80.

24 O’Sullivan, “riverrunning (realisations,” 65.

25 Ibid., 68.

26 Ibid., 68. I was present at her last SubVoicive reading as a citizen of London, around 1988; she solemnly shook bottles of Yorkshire water as an invocation, before reading, to celebrate her removal to Yorkshire.

27 Ibid., 66.

28 Ibid., 67.

29 MM Bakhtin, “Supplement: The Problem of Content, Material, and Form in Verbal Art” in Bakhtin, Art and Answerability, eds. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov (Austin: U of Texas P, 1990), 308.

30 Ibid., 309.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid., 318.

33 Ibid., 314.

34 Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm (Sydney: Power Publications, 1995), 90.

35 See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: The Athlone Press, 1988), 348.

36 My own experience of performing with the dancer and choreographer Jo Blowers informs my sense of the meaning of performance, which I embodied in a poetics piece (which also uses Guattari’s notions) called “A Note on Performance,” And 10 (1998).

37 Guattari, Chaosmosis, 15.

38 Conductors of Chaos: a poetry anthology, ed. Iain Sinclair (London: Picador, 1996). See my “Elsewhere and Everywhere: Other New (British) Poetries,” in Critical Survey 10.1 (1998) for my review-essay on this anthology. References to it are marked CC in the texts.

39 Susan de Muth, “Aural anarchy from the sound of silence,” The Independent (1 March 1995): 23.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Cris cheek, Skin upon Skin (Lowestoft: Sound and Language Publishing, 1996) SLCD0300spokenword.

43 Drew Milne, “A Veritable Dollmine: Caroline Bergvall, Goan Atom, 1. Jets-Poupee,” Quid 4 (2000): 7.  Milne says, “Bergvall’s texts offer themselves as modes of ‘performance writing’, working both as residues of performance poetics and as scripts for performative interpretation. This generates ambiguities for readers more used to studying texts in order to establish an ideal or finalized close reading. Writing which offers a formalist plenitude of performative potential nevertheless tends to be insufficiently determinate for readers otherwise happy with performative approaches”(8).

44 Caroline Bergvall, “What do we mean by Performance Writing?”, 23 October 2000.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

47 See his “Hybridising Writings and Writing Technologies: To research, examine and contextualize key influences, of emergent technologies and those additional convergent agencies cogent to poetic writing practices, in England between 1994-2001, that hybridise writings.” Postgraduate research, unpublished.

48 Guattari, Chaosmosis, 90. Gilbert Adair in his “Taking the Side of Poetry,” Angelaki 5.1 (April 2000): 9-19, also makes use of Guattari’s readings from Bakhtin, to argue for “mimetic-alteric” poetry, which seizes “fragments of content from multiple domains”(11).

49 Charles Olson, “Projective Verse” in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, eds. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (New York: Grove Press, 1973), 153.

50 See Richard Bradford, The Look of It: a theory of visual form in English Poetry (Cork: Cork UP, 1993).

51 Marjorie Perloff, “After Free Verse: The New Nonlinear Poetries,” in Poetry On & Off the Page (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1998) at 141-167. O’Sullivan is discussed at 164-65.

52 Christopher Middleton, “Ideas About Voice in Poetry” in Jackdaw Jiving  Manchester: Carcanet, 1998), 91.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid., 92.

56 Ibid.

57 It could also be argued that a bad performance, while acting as a saying for a performer (as Bakhtin suggests) might operate as a said for the reader. The thematics in such a situation may not so much be the semantics of a text, but the excess of performance that thematizes itself as performance, as an event in which the audience does not participate.

Bio: Robert Sheppard was born in 1955 and was educated at the University of East Anglia. He has published a number of books, including The Flashlight Sonata and Empty Diaries, both published by Stride in Exeter, U.K., and both of which form parts of a long project entitled Twentieth Century Blues. His poetry has been anthologised in The New British Poetry (1988), Other (1999) and Floating Capital, which he co-edited with Adrian Clarke. A selection of the shorter of many essays he has written on poetry, Far Language, is published by Stride, and others have appeared in English, Critical Survey and Symbiosis. He is the editor of Pages magazine and Ship of Fools publishes his many collaborations with the artist Patricia Farrell. He teaches at Edge Hill College of Higher Education, where he is course tutor for the MA in Writing Studies.



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