Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Comment on PoemTalk #73, Steve Benson's "Did the Lights Just Go Out?"

As I listened to the newest episode of the fantastic PoemTalk podcast, I found myself wishing, as I sometimes do, that I could contribute a comment to the group's reading of the poem. Then I thought, "Wait--I have a blog! That means that I can contribute a prolix, meandering comment without getting the stage hook, as I would if I were there!" And so begins my post.

In this episode of PoemTalk, the discussion centers around an improvised performance poem comprised of a series of questions, a poem by Steve Benson recorded at the Bowery Poetry Club, available at PennSound. The poem was later transcribed as "Did the Lights Just Go Out?" Benson performs a similar (similar in that it is also comprised of serial questions) improvisation three days later at the Kelly Writers House, also available at PennSound.

While the content and formal aspects of the poem are clever and interesting, the expressive value of sonic properties of the performance were to me, the most striking. Have a listen to this excerpt from the BPC recording and this one from the Kelly Writers House. What strikes you first? For me it's the percussive, sometimes-staccato cadence of Benson's reading, mixed with the slight nasal timbre of the way he chooses to read it. The minute pauses interjected into natural language serve as a disruption of what Tsur would call the "speech mode" and cause a shift into the poetic mode. That's because words run together when we speak them. Language does not sound the way it looks, in that most textual representations of language consist of words delimited by spaces, whereas spoken language crams together streams of words and lets the brain sort 'em out, as it were.

So what does Benson's disruption of the continuity of expected speech express? My first thought was that it approaches the robotic, and more specifically, the way a computer speaks when it converts text to speech. To me, this is brilliant. Why? Enter the content and form. The questions from Benson's series of queries range from the quotidian ("can you sew it on?") through the thought-provoking ("what makes a reason good?") through the soul-piercingly perceptive, paradoxically declaring through its interrogatives:

Is there a reason to go about things
the way that you're doing it,
or is it sort of automatic, intuitive?
Is it spontaneous?
Are you expressing yourself?
Are your senses experiencing the expression of yourself,
or does it only extend outward from yourself,
and where do you locate yourself when you express yourself?

before returning to the mundane: "have you found your hat?"

The PoemTalkers have it just right when they note that the questions are almost a mimesis of a child asking his or her parents for more information about the world. But I think that that the knowledge-thirsty questions aimed at explaining experiential phenomena paired with the disrupted, robotic sonic properties of the reading evoke a kind of artificial intelligence asking the listener to teach it. The framing that most PennSound listeners would have for the recording, that of listening to it on their computers, gives extra weight to this feeling, and changes the aesthetic of the work from what I would imagine hearing it live would be, and certainly from its textual representation.  

The brilliance of Benson's work, to me, comes from this aesthetic paired with the dramatic ordering of his queries. I pictured my computer or an automaton  trying to learn from me by asking me basic questions, crescendoing, as it learned, to queries that demonstrated that it had a better grasp of humanity than I, a human, did. 

Just for fun, I've created a recording of my computer reading the above block quote from Benson's poem through text to speech:

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