August Klienzahler – Sleeping it Off in Rapid City


In the last post we looked at how an all pervading sense of decorum, reverence and importance came to impede a Derek Walcott poetry reading. In this post we look at how a similarly renowned poet manages to overcome these stifling traditions.

August Kleinzahler's reading takes place at Harvard University. The reading is part of the Phi Beta Kappa Literary Exercises, an annual commencement address that goes back to the 18th Century. Eminence, reverence and importance are not in short supply here.

In the image from the review of the event from the Harvard website(note the barbed, wounded tone of the headline, perhaps a sign that Kleinzahler had not paid due deference to the institution?) we see a grand academic venue, complete seated, vestment clad professors on stage, overlooked by a forefather's statue.

I could not find a recording or description of Kleinzahler's introduction, but, due to the eminence of the engagement, we can assume that it is the kind of introduction that we have come to expect from this kind of event. Members of faclulty would have been name checked and thanked, Kleinzhaler's works, achievements and commendations wold have been listed at a length that no dust jacket would have been long enough to accomodate.

In this context, Kleinzahler's opening statements, delivered from a lectern as he is flanked by the great and the good, could be seen as deliberately casual and bathetic:

"Sleeping it Off in Rapid City...errrm....there's a lot going on here but, erm, [there is a pause where Klienzahler looks towards his audience and widens his eyes as he addresses them] you look like a clever lot and I'll let you find your way."

The space between the announcement of the poem's title and the poem itself can be a fraught and loaded moment. To fill this space by playfully questioning the audience's ability to keep up with the poem initiates an informal mood that is at odds with the eminent setting.

The opening lines of the poem deliver series of disparate images and declarative statements, all seeming to eminate from a variety of viewpoints and and personas. We know from the title that the poem is set in Rapid City, Michigan and that someone, perhaps the poet himself is having a kip, or at least trying to.

A few moments later he is making shrieking velociraptor and grumbling triceratops noises. It turns out that these are recordings on constant playback but for a moment we are invited to imagine two actual dinosaurs in the Rapid City setting. The lines could have informed about the looped soundtracks before we heard them but what fun would that have been?

By now, the listener, if she is as smart as she looks, has worked out that Klienzahler is not so much setting up a narrative or line of argument but rather an attitude and an aesthetic.

After describing the stuffy confines of a bible shop in comparison to the lively cacophonics of the dinosaur shop he states:

This is a sacred place, a holy place
4 a.m in sacred place,
I can tell this is a sacred place, I needn't be told
It's in the air
I feel it

The declarations of sacredness continue throughout the poem and we, as generous listeners, take this declarations as sincere. This first impression is soon thrown into question when the poet informs us that:

The Lambs of Christ are among us
You can tell by the billboards
The billboards with fetuses, way out on the highway

Blessings are also bestowed, and, just in case the listener hasn't worked out that Kleinzahler is taking the piss, they fall upon Richard Nixon, Mao Tze Tung and Kevin Costner.

The poem talks about the heart of America, but this heart is contradictory or whimsical in its nature. Descriptions of vast, humbling landscapes collide with similarly reverential nods to high kitsch.

This could be seen as the postmodern attitude of the poem. We are never sure which exclamations are sincere and which are ironic.

It is this ambiguity as to whether Kleinzahler is sincere or taking the piss that can be transposed into the frame and setting of the reading itself. If we cannot be sure about the ideas of sacredness and blessings within the poem, can be also be sure about the eminence of the venue and its grand commencement traditons?

It is in this sense that I believe Kleizahler is able to overcome the stiffling sense of importance that plagued the Walcott reading. The audience are now able to approach the poems in their own ways. Perhaps they may still find the poems to be of importance, perhaps they'll find that they don't like the poems at all, which is absolultely fine. They may even, heaven forbid, find themselves having some fun.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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