litanies said handedly: poetry, collage, & performance
In 2012 Ralph La Charity was one of the poets I wrote about for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet under the heading of the “amateur.” In that short essay, I used the term in both its original meaning—those who do what they do out of love—and its more modern, pejorative meaning, one acquired with the professionalization of all the arts and humanities in the West. I also mentioned that La Charity was one of the first poets I ever came across when I moved to Cincinnati in 1983. I had no idea then that he was both “famous” in avant-garde music (primarily jazz) and poetry (the sound-based sector of Language Writing) circles and practically unknown among mainstream, print-oriented poets. However, this status of the poet has less to do with La Charity’s “poetics” than his commitment to their cultural (in all senses—aesthetic, social, etc.) implications. On the acknowledgements page—a place where poets typically list previous publications of their poems—of his new book, La Charity tips his hats to all the bars, coffeehouses and clubs across the United States where he has read and performed his work. A brief listing of his published work is given near the end of the book. This decision to prioritize oral performance over print sites is, of course, consistent with what we might call a post-Beat aesthetics. And La Charity’s interest in, and performances with, jazz bands only reinforces his status as a direct descendant of the Beats. But unlike many of the Beats who read and performed in both non-academic and academic settings, La Charity has consistently refused to perform at colleges and universities. Litanies said handedly is thus a compilation of his poems and collages directed at non-academic audiences even if, truth be told, academics are more likely to read and enjoy this book than the bar, coffeehouse, and club patrons La Charity envisions. That’s because litanies said handedly is the record of an autodidact, the learning of a poet that is so iconoclastic he has tended to fall between academic poetics on the one hand and spoken word/performance poetics on the other. His musical references are blues and jazz—not hip hop, rap or EDM—and his literary references are too traditional to appeal to an audience for which Tupac Shakur—not Saul Williams (though perhaps jessica care moore)—is the pre-eminent poet of a generation.
Splintered audiences aside, the full title of this book is curious. While a book of poetry and collages makes sense per visual experiences, what are we to make of the “performance” part of the subtitle? Here, La Charity faces some of the same difficulties that we will see in Tracie Morris’ most recent book, handholding, from Kore Press, which I will write about in my next post. It’s a problem faced by all artists whose work is, ideally, inseparable from live performances: how to capture the “essence” of a live performance via recording or, more problematic, via translation into texts. Unlike Morris’ book which directs the reader to a website of her reading from handholding, litanies said handedly includes no such redirection. Presumably, then, the performance here is in the very language itself, and as the rest of the title suggests, La Charity’s pursuit of innovation, which means, for him, the pursuit of “Poetry,” formally exploits phonetics, homonyms, neologisms, etc. However, as the word “litanies” suggests, La Charity’s techniques are not deployed for their own sake; he is interested in the semantics of what one might call aesthetic spirituality, what he names “resonance” in the manifesto that closes the book. For La Charity, this spirituality or, more prosaically, transcendence, is essentially play, the play of music and language as the “quantum mechanics” of sound even if this materialism can only refer back to sound via “language.” To that extent then, La Charity reminds us that we who are fortunate to have hearing, first experience the world as pure sound before the necessity/desire for social contact and communication drives us to language acquisition. But as one may have already surmised, La Charity’s project—which depends upon a defense of, and recitation from, memory as the connecting tissue or “umbilical” cord between utterance and self—is an aesthetic analogue to Walter Benjamin’s various meditations on language and, in particular, translation. Just as La Charity insists that “Poetry” does not itself exist, that all poems are necessarily failed attempts to attain Poetry, so too for Benjamin all human languages aspire to the condition of Language. This religiosity will remind many of the modernists and those that follow in their wake, and thus it is not surprising that La Charity praises the efforts of Pound and Duncan, Williams and Spicer, all of whom, to varying extents, understood “poetry” as an exterior plane or realm (be it a premodern past, a spiritualized “parallel” reality, a local polis, or otherworldly dictation) from which the poets inhaled as inspiration and toward which their poems exhaled as utterance, breath, speech, etc. But La Charity carefully distinguishes his oral/sound praxis from that of performance poetry, which he sees as unwittingly resurrecting the poet as priest via ego: “Performance Poetry enacts ritual circuitry when it works, but the poet’s priestly pretensions sicken us when it doesn’t work.” (116) For La Charity, the poet reciting poems from memory is more like a conductor of a train, making sure that the whole thing doesn’t come off the rails while making haste with due speed (La Charity emphasizes again and again the importance of rapid-fire delivery). And, of course, per his take down of storytelling and narrative on the first page of the manifesto, this train has no destination except Poetry—a final stop at which no poem arrives.
But what about the book itself? Litanies said handedly, a phrase that emphasizes the relationship between vocality and manual manipulation, between articulation and inscription, is divided into three sections, each prefaced with one of La Charity’s collages. Framing these sections is “prefatory notations,” an introduction to the book, and “appendices,” a kind of manifesto. As indicated above, many of the poems here are culled from previous publications but new pieces also appear here in print for the first time. Given the aggression of the prefatory and concluding statements, one might be tempted to read the poems as defensive articulations of the poetics as opposed to the other way around. Happily, the poems stand on their own as poems, which is to say it will be difficult for new (and perhaps even old) readers to sense that something has been “lost in translation” from oral performance to fixed print. Humor, for one thing, is intact in poems like La Charity’s revision of the Biblical Genesis, “THE VISIONAL, EN PASSANT,” (1) or the blues chant “Crank Song” (59-61). La Charity’s apotheosis of sound as play follows the lead of that opening gambit in the first section, “Splash Research,” by opposing the implicit threat of idolatry associated with the fixed visual/landlocked (some poem titles are set in all caps) to the fluidity of water and sound. The poems in the first section are largely ars poetica and, like the largely elegiac poems in the last section (including the tender O’Hara homage, “stopped doing it” and “Bannisters of Light,”) are fairly traditional in form and technique. However, La Charity struts his stuff in part two (“a Habit about”); it’s the most innovative section of the book. Sound dominates sense in poems like “SaSemble Chant,” “Gravity’s Graven Erupt Eneanympic Gan-Pan” and “ATTLE CHEEA ATTLE / CHEE ATTLE CHEE QUA.” The extravagance of these and other poems in this section are aptly summed up in a line from “Tonguing Crooked Ample”: “why-not’s aplenty & plumb galore.” (69) The everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach here and elsewhere assaults the reader with a Joycean—or infant’s—delight in the tongue-twisting possibilities of sound.
Indeed, one might come away from these witty, funny, and wry poems wondering what all the fuss—in the appendices—is all about. One might wonder, that is, if the very success of these poems in print is, for La Charity, a record of their failure as performance pieces. More likely, however, these poems in print are, for La Charity, simply another, brief manifestation of the poems—like particles that wink in and out of existence in a cloud chamber—that will continue to alter and change each time they are performed live. Of course, one might note that this is true of all poems published in print and then subsequently read aloud. Perhaps this is why La Charity seems wary of repeat performances which “yield the upper hand to the Audience.” (115) The point he makes here is that incomprehension—assisted via speed of delivery—gives the poet, and thus the poem, the upper hand over the audience. This aggression toward the audience is a necessity after Spicer and Lew Welch—they establish a historical boundary for La Charity (pre- and post-oral performance)—because institutionalization of the poetry reading has presumably made audiences complacent regarding the “knowledge’ that poems impart (a knowledge toward—not about—that unfathomable Poetry). In brief, the ritual of the poetry reading must be shattered if audiences are to learn that they have yet to learn. In an age when critics openly worry about the dwindling audiences for poetry—regardless of its style or temperament—La Charity’s no-holds barred aggressiveness, even open hostility, toward the traditional poetry audience might seem, as they say, counterproductive. Unlike a sound poet like john bennett, for example, whose vocal and written performances presumed a coterie—not an audience—La Charity, in this book, seems aware, and wary, of the kind of audience that would pick up a book of poetry. He seems to acknowledge in advance that his audience, the bar, coffeehouse, and club patron, will likely not be purchasing this book. On the other hand, as I indicated above, La Charity is the kind of poet who doesn’t need to fret over audience. He already has one, he might acquire another, and in any case, both will be ready—ears up, pens drawn.