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Notes Towards a Context for Call and Digital Response

In her 2007 article “Ethics and the Lyric: Form, Dialogue, Answerability,” Mara Scanlon lays out two arguments on dialogic literature that I would like to take up here, and in subsequent postings, as a chance to re-examine literary considerations of call and response alongside digital-lit discourse.  First, she insists that dialogic poetry is possible, challenging the Bakhtinian declaration that “the natural and healthy state of language, which is a changing, socially stratified, multivocal clatter of discourses, is unrepresentable in poetry;” and second, that an additional dialogue between the poet and the reader is “implored, demanded, and even enacted by the lyric’s use of call-and-response traditions” (2).  Both of these arguments are fused in Scanlon’s close reading of Robert Hayden’s poem “Night, Death, Mississippi.”  By focusing on this reading, I intend to present the limitations of Scanlon’s interpretation as a case in point for the general limitations of textually based poetries to achieve the dynamic heteroglossia of oral call-and-response traditions.  My hope is that these limitations may allow us to see digital literature’s unique potential for poetic antiphony.  Before going forward, I’d like to add that it is nevertheless true that any translation, be it from one language to another or one medium (oral spiritual) to another (printed poem), must be treated as its own unique source text and not the drippings of some ideal fatback.  It is because I sense that ergodic interactivity, with its information feedback loop, makes digital media better suited for poetic encounters with call and response that I am also curious to see the incompatibility of the two forms.  What will make a digital call-and-response poem different from a printed one?  What about a digital call-and-response poem will constitute it as unique art form, distinct from its unwritten roots?

Initially, I agree with Scanlon’s first point about poetry’s dialogic possibility, recounting a litany of examples in which poets include the demotic utterance into their poems, be it overheard on the subway (Hart Crane’s The Tunnel), in a gorilla cage (Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos) or from the memory of an abandoned housing project (Gwendolyn Brook’s In the Mecca).  The list is as vast and limitless as poetry itself.  Yet, we can say that most, if not all, of these examples fall short in sharing the space of the poem, since the demotic response to the poet’s call is still under the control of the poet, and is represented in a cohesive medium that belies the eruptive capability of antiphony.  Case in point: In writing my previous sentences, I was vexed, and eventually failed, to find words that convey the poet’s ability to share the space of his/her poem that de-emphasize the poet’s ultimate agency.  If this point holds, Scanlon’s arguments cannot; yet, this criticism is not to be leveled on poetry alone.

I agree with Scanlon that any attempt the novel can make at heteroglossia can be countered by poetic technique, i.e. collage, fragmentation, multiple perspectives, indefinite embeddings.  However, when she claims, “Hayden’s poem is multivocalic because it contains several speakers and voices, and the characters speak to one another and to the reader/listener,” I am unconvinced.  Even if the various speakers articulate multiple worldviews, the poem remains an immutable database of the poet’s imagined out of body experience. Her term character allows us to see the voices in the poem for what they are: limited fantasy that depends entirely on the author.  When we refer to Othello and our Uncle Joe both as characters, it is obvious that one is a part played by an actor and the other is a larger than life personality. (The interplay between these two meanings is rife for further thought, but can be settled for my purposes with the following example.) If one of them tells us, “Certain, men should be what they seem,” we can ask them to repeat, elaborate, or leave us alone; whereas, the other cannot acknowledge us, cannot respond to our response.

The second form of dialogue, as suggested by Scanlon, addresses this limitation by treating the entire poem as a call and imparts the responsibility for response into the reader’s hands.  By relaxing the poems material borders, Scanlon’s argument inadvertently signals “The open nature of the Web as medium.” which allows Web sites continuous incompletion (Manovich, chap 5).  She also points to Hayden’s use of “free indirect discourse, the second-person address and […] the unassigned lament [in order to deprive] the reader a distance from the poem from which she may comfortably deny culpability or responsibility” (16).  If, then, the poem acknowledges us, how does our response function to steer the leader/poet’s succeeding call.  When we read O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” or any ekphrastic poem, one can argue, and is right to do so, that this sort of acknowledgment is the poem’s occasion.  O’Hara might be a bad example for my purposes, since his response might have actually had an effect on Mike Goldberg’s “Sardines.”  But, for the majority of poems written after another poet, the medium is closed and rigid.  Only one implicates the other.  Therefore, what difference does it make if we’re looking for the response to come from a separate voice inside the poem or from the reader, if neither affect the type of dynamic, real-time co-authorship that critics such as Robert Stepto envisioned in designating call-and-response as the characteristic mode of African-American literary influence.

When I mention this dynamic, real-time co-authorship I am thinking specifically of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” sermon.  “As the story goes, echoes could be heard,” was the phrase I jotted down last week, while sitting in Maurice Wallace’s Critical Studies: Martin Luther King course. The story is of a Southern black minister’s rising crescendo.  The echo is of a nation’s most influential gospel singer.  Following either Mahalia Jackson’s prompt, “Tell them about your dream, Martin,” or his own estimations as to what would and would not work with the billowing crowd, King departed from his prepared sermon in order to improvise on a trope he had put to use numerous times in various other speaking engagements.  His ability to recast himself and his speech based on the constraints of a particular audience is well documented.  In his essay “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” James Baldwin writes, “King is a great speaker.  The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience sheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them” (644).   Without expression or behavior, it is impossible to be certain of what hurts or baffles another person.  This is the philosophical underpinning of any antiphonal experience and must be conceded as the critical dimension of call and response.  By avoiding it, we misperceive the performance (religious, artistic, all political).  It is easy to think of the March on Washington in terms of its production of the most salient icon of the movement for civil rights.  After all, he was anointed in the black and white luminescence of the new media of the day, and broadcast television tends to sew all audience identity to the wayside of the forth wall.  “Night, Death, Mississippi” is a Robert Hayden poem, whereas I contend that the “I Have a Dream” sermon is a production of “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

To conclude by looking forward, I’d like to counter Guy Davenport’s remunerative notion, “Every force evolves a form.”  I would say every form evolves with force, as a way to describe the potential for the well-established call-and-response form to harness the polyvalent force of hypertextuality.  In subsequent postings, I hope to play out these ideas in an ensemble, featuring various apropos performers: Espen Aarseth, Deleuze and Guattari, Söke Dinkla, Butch Morris and Brian Kim Stevens.  Stay tuned.

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