Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Marit MacArthur, poetry readings, and sound studies

Given the work I’ve been doing on poetry over the years, it probably comes as no surprise that I was particularly interested in Marit MacArthur’s presentation on her research at the Cultural Analytics symposium. I first came across MacArthur’s work last year with the publication of her article “Monotony, the Churches of Poetry Reading, and Sound Studies.”

That article locates “the origins of the default, neutral style of contemporary academic poetry readings in secular performance and religious ritual.” In a way, that would have been enough, but MacArthur is going much further by, as she stated in another article, using “computational and statistical methods and machine learning” to study the reading styles of poets.

MacArthur’s work is making it possible to compile and “interpret quantitative data about performative speech,” especially with respect to poetry readings. For her presentation at the Cultural Analytics symposium, MacArthur shared her findings based on a sample of 100 poets reading their works. She discovered that differences between the 50 women poets and women poets were especially pronounced.

Among those women poets in her sample, she noticed something particularly fascinating. A few black women poets were among the most dynamic (or least "flattened") readers and at the same time, a few black women poets were among the least dynamic readers.

MacArthur’s findings seemed to confirm something I’ve noticed only anecdotally. The black women students in my classes have long expressed that they were “bored” by many print-based award-winning African American women poets. Those students prefer the dynamism of spoken word artists, many of whom have no books. Those black women students also prefer a black arts figures like Sonia Sanchez over various other contemporary African American poets. 

In her writing, MacArthur has discussed:
monotonous incantation, popularly known as “poet voice,” which is characterized by: (1) the repetition of a falling cadence within a narrow range of pitch; (2) a flattened affect that suppresses idiosyncratic expression of subject matter in favor of a restrained, earnest tone; and (3) the subordination of conventional intonation patterns dictated by syntax, and of the poetic effects of line length and line breaks, to the prevailing cadence.
In my mind, there’s clearly an under-discussed class dynamic among black women poets that explains why some are more likely to adopt “poet voice” while others do not. Despite my black women students favoring really dynamic reading styles, it’s worth noting that the black women poets who utilize poet voice are far more likely to be professionally successful and have their poems presented to students in classrooms.

The silence on these class differences in African American literary studies is regrettable, though not altogether surprising. But hopefully, we can attend to those matters at some point in the future. For now, I wanted to footnote the work that MacArthur is doing and point out how instructive it is for what we might do when it comes to poetry and sound studies.

The Jay Z Dataset--presentation at the University of Notre Dame
An African American literature course: Recordings of black women reading poetry

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