John Ashbery’s introductory comments on The System (from 3 Poems)
This is an excerpt from a reading John Ashbery gave at St. Marks Church in NYC in 1971.
Ashbery comments: “It is kind of an environmental work, if I may be so bold. If you feel like leaving at any point it won’t matter you will have had the experience.” I’m beginning this blog with these comments because they point to (and undermine) several of the underlying assumptions/conventions of the public poetry reading:
1) The audience should pay close attention. The reader should engage the audience during the entirety of the reading. If there is not a consistent and intense level of engagment, someone (audience or reader) is not doing their job.
2) Poetry readings should have a particular, relatively short duration. In the same way that a large release film tends to have set time parameters (anywhere from a little over an hour to just under 3 hours) a single author poetry reading would generally last from say, 10 minutes to 45 or 50 minutes at the outer end.
3) Just as one would tend to sit through an entire movie, it would be expected to stay throughout an entire poetry reading. To leave either one generally signals disapproval/failure.
When Ashbery says that the poem he will read might take anywhere from “an hour and two hours” you can hear a small patch of laughter from the audience. I am always interested in what laughter means in the context of a public reading. I’m going to go into this in more detail in subsequent posts but here it seems to point at the violation of the convention of the usual length of a poetry reading. The fact that he will “declare an intermission” at the halfway point in the reading is interesting because it seems to reframe his reading in terms of other kinds of performances that might have intermissions (long films, extended musical or theatrical performances, etc.)
I think these kinds paratextual comments are useful to think about because they not only tell you about normative public reading practices but (especially in Ashbery’s case) they point to the ways in which an author/reader might create a new kind of work by modifying these conventions.
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