Flop Sweat


"The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who will go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow poets, while the usual audience consists of myopic school teachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias and his fellow poets." -- W. H. Auden

I stopped performing on stage a few years ago, or maybe it's better to say that for the past few years I've tried to stop myself from performing on stage. The funny thing is that I've always been pretty good in front of a crowd: relaxed, audible, and emotive. Even so, I've come to dislike being on stage. Perhaps this comes from seeing other people at poetry readings. That I might be as obvious and needy in my desire for approval is mortifying. So I have tried to stop wanting to perform. But that's the point, isn't it? Being on stage doesn't bother me. It is wanting to be there.

In The Performance of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman described how we consciously and unconsciously use verbal and physical expressions to control the perceptions of others. The self, Goffman said, is merely a carefully affected performance ceaselessly fine-tuned for specific audiences and situations over a lifetime. We may believe in our performance (acting so well we fool ourselves) or we may cynically manipulate others' responses for our own ends. But, he argued, we are actors to the end. There is no true self, only the self-created roles to which we evidence greater or lesser fidelity.

And yet something curious happens when we mount a real stage. At local poetry readings there are always the same desperate would-be poets anxious to read their heartfelt but often dreary work. They arrive, sign up to read, and then wait with heads buried in greasy manuscripts. The first performance of self they affect is the one Goffman talked about, the one expressed through clothing, posture, self-effacing humor or gestures, and the audience almost always acquiesces to it. As Goffman noted,
Society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in an appropriate way. Connected with this principle is a second, namely that an individual who implicitly or explicitly signifies that he has certain social characteristics ought in fact to be what he claims he is. In consequence when an individual projects a definition of the situation... he automatically exerts a moral demand on others, obliging them to value and treat him in a manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect.
In other words, until the moment the poet begins to read, the rest of us are politely extending to him his moral due that he is who he purports to be: an actual poet. But this obligation disappears as soon as he starts to read his work, for a poet in performance has no implicit or explicit claim on an audience's approval. He relinquishes it the moment he puts his work forward for evaluation. And all too often the quietly asserted claim of "I am a poet" is belied by a bad poem.

Goffman called this disruption, the contradiction in a performance of self that can discomfit the observers. The heightened likelihood for disruption in any artistic performance is why we sometimes dignify artists by calling them brave. In one sense, they aren't brave at all. A disregard for public humiliation hardly resembles true courage and may arise as easily from vanity or an inability to estimate one's own talent. It may even result from a shameless praise grubbing.

Poetry readings actually seem more susceptible to this kind of disruption than other types of staged performance (stand-up comedy may be the sole exception). After all, it's possible to hold an actor's performance apart from who he or she may really be, but at least since Wordsworth an important tenet of poetic theory has held that the essential "self" is the main poetic subject. Indeed, Romantic poetry is premised on the idea that the poet must journey beyond convention to find and articulate a true self. Modernists like Eliot and Pound may later have argued that the self should disappear in poetry, but few beginners or bad poets ascribe to the Modernist line. For the most part they're thorough-going Romantics, even if they've never had so much as a whiff of Wordsworth. Most amateurs generally believe they have to put their deepest thoughts and feelings on display to be any good. But it's excruciating to watch this when their heartfelt honesty is neither original nor talented. When this happens you only pray that the performer isn't aware of what he has just done.

I should note, too, that the kind of humiliation I'm talking about doesn't usually occur at the more high profile "poetry slams". There the participants and the audience know that the poet's job is to perform a role separate from his ostensibly true self. These poems read more like play scripts, or in some cases musical scores. But at less accomplished slams or open microphone nights in struggling coffee houses you can still find anxious scribblers eager to get on stage and pour out sincere banalities to a room full of strangers.

There's a kind of desperation in this, a kind of longing for approval on the most embarrassing level. And you can't be wholly comfortable doing it ever again once you've recognized it for what it is. So I have tried to stop wanting to want it, but I haven't been very successful. Confronted with a crowd, my friends, my family, my wife, I still find myself desperately longing to say, "No, no, no. This is who I really am. Really. Now please, please, please... love me."

Of course plenty of people perform without desperately wanting the approval of the crowd. They may want the audience to like their work, but that's not the entire motivation. Art can be political, didactic, therapeutic, evangelistic or just fun. It may even be that a poet likes hearing words or the sound of her own voice. But most amateurs (and I am certainly one) don't mount a stage for any of those reasons. In performance they betray their secret and inescapably adolescent desire to be admired.

So I've refrained from getting on stage out of a fear of betraying myself. William James once wrote that "with no attempt, there can be no failure; with no failure, no humiliation…." Perhaps poems are only honest when they go unread. The moment they will be seen, they start to perform. Maybe, too, a poem has to be left a long time alone before it dares show its face -- maybe long enough for the investment of self to age away into unrecognizability.

In the Ars Poetica, Horace suggested a poem should be kept at home for about 10 years. Alexander Pope thought five years should do it, and as recently as the 1980s Donald Hall was recommending 18 months. Maybe we should never show our poems to anyone and preserve the self-flattering illusion that someone, someday, will unveil us to the world as an almost lost and glorious Hopkins. A boy can dream, can't he?

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