Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present

Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present

by Lesley Wheeler


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The most interesting tensions and ambitions of twentieth-century American poetry intersect in one resonant word: voice. The term "poetic voice" emphasizes poetry's reliance on sound, which is prominent in ethnic American writings, new formalism, and many species of performance and sound-directed poetry, both mainstream and avant-garde. However, voice is also a metaphor for originality, personality, and the illusion of authorial presence within printed poetry—meanings that have been particularly useful (and provocative) in literary criticism and creative writing.

In Voicing American Poetry, Lesley Wheeler explores how and why American poetry of the twentieth century and beyond keeps returning to voice as an idea, even though the term frustrates definition. Poetic voice is a crucial term precisely because of its ambiguity: both poets and critics invoke voice to argue for poetry's power. Because voice can also be a medium for poetry, this book offers a uniquely full history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry performance in the United States. Beginning with Edna St. Vincent Millay's captivating performances of presence on the page, the stage, and the radio, Wheeler investigates the rise of the academic poetry reading circuit and its various lively alternatives, from the Beats to the poetry-slam scene.

Along the way Wheeler examines how Langston Hughes transformed oral culture into visual poetry, and how collaborative poetry challenges the very idea of self-expression. Voicing American Poetry also features an annotated list of important poetry readings in the United States since 1950. Wheeler finds that American poetry itself remains a vital, coherent enterprise and that this commitment is constantly renewed in lecture halls, auditoriums, coffee shops, bars, and classrooms.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801446689
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 04/29/2008
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lesley Wheeler is Professor and Department Head of English at Washington and Lee University. She is the author of The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove and Scholarship Girl (poems).

What People are Saying About This

Adalaide Morris

"Lesley Wheeler's close listening to the sounds of performed poetry captures what happens when textual voices become, for a moment, voiced texts. Amplifying the resonance of poems recited, staged, broadcast, and recorded by performers from Edna St. Vincent Millay and Langston Hughes to the contenders on the Four Corners slam team, this book restores the vitality, capaciousness, and flexibility of the term voice as a way to comprehend poetry as an idea, a genre, and a force for social and political change."

Jennifer Michael Hecht

"Lesley Wheeler's excellent new book explains today's beautiful and strange style of voicing poetry, from its origins with Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her poems on the radio, right up to the last poetry conference you attended. It captures today's scene in the world of poetry readings and engages the ideas of the most relevant contemporary critics and poets. One of my many favorite lines reads, 'You don't have to take dictation from W. H. Auden's ghost to recognize that all poems, even the most apparently lyric, are in various senses polyvocal, composite, choral, rife with dissenting discourses, even haunted.' Voicing American Poetry is smart, informative, and funny throughout. Perhaps most important, Wheeler chose her key poets wisely. She's superb on Langston Hughes and on the collaborative work of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton. This is a very good read and an important contribution to the field."

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

"Voicing American Poetry performs an important intervention in the poetry wars that continue to consume energy and ink, and it will also serve very valuable pedagogical purposes inside and outside the classroom. This is a kind of aesthetic peacemaking through close textual reading and cultural and performance studies. Wheeler's large mind and imagination are capable of seeing beyond simple oppositions to appreciate and to understand many different kinds of writing and poetry performance from various times and locations."

Junior Burke

"With echoes from Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg, Lesley Wheeler's Voicing American Poetry celebrates the activation of language from eye/mind to ear/body."

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