I've been reading a book of occasional writings by Ursula K. LeGuin, "Dancing at the Edge of the World". LeGuin is best known as a science fiction writer, "The Left Hand of Darkness," "The Lathe of Heaven," "Always Coming Home," the EarthSea series. But she writes poetry and fiction of the "New Yorker" sort as well. These essays were mostly written as commencement or other sorts of addresses, or responses to questions about her fiction, or book reviews.
The evening I wrote my last blog entry I began LeGuin's essay "Text, Silence, Performance," which, to my surprise, turned out to be on the same subject. "Information is, or may be, one value or aspect of the word. There are others. Sound is one of them. Significance does not necessarily imply reference to an absent referent; the event itself may be considered significant ... A word in the first place is a noise. ... [Unlike music] the word is a sound that symbolizes, has significance; though it is not pure information it is or can function as a sign. Insofar as it is a sign it can be replaced by another sign, equally arbitrary, and this sign can be a visual one [for example, a written word]."
LeGuin sticks up for the oral arts, questioning the primacy of literature as written. "Isn't there room for both? ... Why have we abandoned and despised the interesting things that happen when the word behaves like music and the author is not just 'a writer' but the player of the instrument of language?"
When I was a baby poet in the Sonoma County (NorCal) poetry scene there was an older poet who would perform his work, sometimes reciting it from memory; when I asked if he sought publication he insisted that publicaton did not matter. It was the spoken word that was the event, the page in a book or magazine was dead. I thought his work good enough to persist on the page and was sorry to hear it would live only in that transitory moment and be gone. I remember him but don't remember his poetry.
"Good enough" ... there's a value judgment, eh?
At a poetry reading I would rather hear a strong performance, even if the writing is relatively weak/uninteresting/unsurprising, than a weak performance of superior writing. There's no point reading it aloud if you read it in a voice that doesn't carry or that mushes the words up or that makes of the sounds a wearying sameness. I've heard few verbal improvs and haven't been impressed by any that I recall. Not saying it couldn't happen but in this culture there's little training available, hence what I've heard tends to the simplistic, the cliche. The "dozens", a form of verbal insult and one-ups-manship in African American culture, which may be more well-known among us paleskins as the rap contest (I'm thinking of Eminem's "8 Mile"; on TV I saw a clip from it in which Eminem competes in a rap contest), could be the sort of training for improv that would produce complex oral texts.
As a professional writer, a white woman, college educated, born and raised in a country and during a period of history in which literacy is predominent, universal literacy being one of the reasons the U.S. judges itself superior to the rest of the world, one ought not be surprised that LeGuin looks around her and sees only disdain for the non-written literatures. This is the stance of the people who count in the U.S., and, probably, most of the world. The university-educated, the social/culture elites.
But TV, the movies, are these written literatures? In the essay LeGuin considers live theatre: "Plays get printed, but their life is still clearly in performance, in the actors' breath, the audience's response. But the drama isn't central to our literature any more." I'm not sure TV isn't at the center of contemporary language arts. "[M]ost film and TV drama," LeGuin says, "use words like they were sanitary landfill." ... "most" ... Most of everything is ... well, as another science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon has it, "90% of everything is crud."
LeGuin ends the essay suggesting, "Poets can play new games here [in audio technologies], just as they did when printing (also a technology of reproduction) was new. Unless the poet can afford the machineries and becomes a technician, the work has to be a collaboration; but then, all performance is collaboration. Poetry as the big solo ego trip is only one version of the art ... Aduio poetry is not, of course, performance: if you buy the tape you have the reproduction, not the event. You have the unmortal shadow. But at least it isn't silent; at least the text was woven with the living voice."
I'm not going to let that be the last word. Because silence is OK with me. LeGuin talks about ancient readers who read every word aloud. The written word as a silent experience is fairly new. The written word, in human experience, is still very new, and to many (most?) people still foreign. It has properties different from those of the spoken word. Just as the audio "machineries" provide new ways to "play," so does "printing" (still new) and handwriting/calligraphy ... Recovering the experience of the oral doesn't push out the experience of the silent and visual. As LeGuin says, "We aren't binary. Isn't there room for both? [italics hers]" And more room.