Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

August Kleinzahler – Sleeping it off in Rapid City

Posted on | February 18, 2017 | 3 Comments

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

August Kleinzahler’s reading takes place at Harvard University. It 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.

In the image from the review of the event from the Harvard website (note the barbed, wounded tone, perhaps a sign that Kleinzahler had not paid due deference?) we see a grand academic venue. Warm mahogany hues abound, save for the red vestments of the dignitaries sat on stage, overlooked by a forefather’s statue.

I could not find a recording or description of Kleinzahler’s introduction, but, due to the prestige of the engagement, we can make some informed assumptons. Members of faculty would have been name checked and thanked. Kleinzahler’s works, achievements and commendations would have been listed at a length that no dust jacket could accomodate.

In this context, Kleinzahler’s opening statements, delivered from a lectern as he is flanked by the great and the good, seem casual and irreverent:

Sleeping it Off in Rapid City…errrm….there’s a lot going on here but, erm, [there is a pause where Kleinzahler looks to the audience and widens his eyes] 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 initiates an informal mood that is at odds with the setting.

The opening lines deliver a 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, South Dakota and that someone, perhaps the poet himself, is having a kip, or at least trying to.

A few lines later he is making shrieking velociraptor and grumbling triceratops noises. It turns out that these are references to a recording on loop, but for a moment we are invited to imagine two actual dinosaurs in the Rapid City setting. The lines could have referenced the medium before the message, but what fun would that have been?

By now, the listener, if she is as smart as she looks, has worked out that Kleinzahler isn’t setting up a narrative or line of argument – he is establishing 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, being generous listeners, accept their sincerity. This first impression is soon thrown into doubt 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 and whimsical. Descriptions of vast, humbling landscapes collide with nods to high kitsch. This is the postmodern attitude of the poem. We are never sure which exclamations are sincere and which are ironic.

This ambiguity as to whether Kleinzahler is sincere or taking the piss that can be transposed onto the frame and setting of the reading itself. If we cannot be sure about the ideas of sacredness and blessings within the poem, can we also be sure about the eminence of the venue and its grand commencement traditon? Every time that Kleinzahler asserts that this is “a sacred place”, how can the listener not be similarly cogniscent that this also applies to the institution, even on an unconscious level?

It is in this sense that Kleinzahler is able to overcome the stifling sense of importance that plagued the Walcott reading. The audience are now able to approach the poems in their own way. Perhaps some may still find the poems to be of importance, while others may find that they don’t like the poems at all, which is absolultely fine. Some may even, heaven forbid, enjoy themselves.


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.


3 Responses to “August Kleinzahler – Sleeping it off in Rapid City”

  1. niallosullivan
    February 18th, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

    Hello to anyone that may be reading these. Feel free to say hello back in the comments. The next few posts will move away from the poetry reading, and look at other forms of spoken word.

  2. Lewis Buxton
    February 20th, 2017 @ 12:00 pm

    Hey Niall,
    I’m finding these posts really entertaining and supremely helpful to my own critical writing, so thank you. When the various shades of the poetry community call for a better critical dialogue, I think this sort of writing is what we need. We also need more dinosaur noises at poetry gigs.

  3. niallosullivan
    February 26th, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    Hi Lewis, thanks for the kind words. Yes, that’s definitely the aim of this series. Hopefully the critical dialogue will widen a bit further than “Are adverts good or bad” or “This journalist said something mean about Spoken Word, lets all write some righteous blogs and facebook posts about them”. I know I’ve been guilty of the latter.


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