What kind of thing is a poem?
This is not, or not always, the almost wholly academic -- bordering on theological -- question it may at first appear to be.
Some years ago, researching an essay (which later appeared in an issue of Edinburgh Review) on contemporary American writers including Harry Mathews, Charles Bernstein and Harmony Korine, I came across an interesting fact: the very nature of a poem had recently changed - at least, in an industrial context. The longstanding Standard Industrial Classification System, a sort of Dewey system for the mapping and analysis of industry, had been superseded by the more up-to-date North American Industry Classification System: and in that shift, a curious (and generally overlooked) reappraisal had occurred. Previously, poetry had been considered to be a kind of manufacture, a subgroup of the publishing industry. Now, under NAICS, poetry was reclassified as a kind of information.
The development of NAICS had happened partly in response to the great boom in what was then being quite newly described as "the information economy". The trade in data had begun to supplant the trade in objects, and in that context, the way that cultural production was perceived inevitably changed to reflect that broader tendency in our industrial and/or post-industrial lives.
As someone who would struggle to think of a poem as any kind of "thing" in the first place -- I feel far less uncomfortable thinking not about poems but about "poetry" as a living practice, a process, with "poems" among its outputs and residues -- you might reasonably expect me to welcome this fundamental reimagining of the poem. Surely a poem shouldn't be thought of as a manufactured object, with all the attendant connotations of commodity and fixity, but rather as something more fluid, more disembodied, more able to occupy a whole range of sites and formats, virtual as well as real.
Certainly it is true that the variety of encounters it's now possible to have with poems would have made no sense to their authors even forty years ago. I might first meet a poem by, say, Philip Larkin in a second-hand Faber edition of one of his collections; or in a big paperback anthology of "The Nation's Favourite Poems"; or I might hear it read on the radio, or discussed on television by Alan Bennett or Stephen Fry; or I might be sent it in a multiply-forwarded email; or read it in a panel on a London tube train, alongside advertisements for vitamin supplements and travel insurance, or in a tabloid newspaper discarded on the same train. I might come across a Carol Ann Duffy poem when I'm given it as a Christmas gift, printed on a teatowel or a coffee mug (perhaps just the first stanza of it). In a world accurately described by NAICS, this is a wholly unproblematic reality. A poem is a data-set, and the data is the same whether I'm reading it in a Norton anthology designed for undergraduate students or on a fridge magnet at my auntie's house.
Do we know that this is not quite true? It doesn't feel right, does it? It's not quite the same poem in all these different contexts, even if the data is identical. Reading is not only an analytical act, it's also an interpretive one: not necessarily at the level of trying to "get" a poem, raiding its language-structures and its symbology for "deeper" meanings; but in terms of how we understand the nature of our encounter with the text. Partly this is about convention and habituation and these things change over time in accord with larger social trends; but it is not only stultified orthodoxy that tells me I may not be taken seriously as a student if I arrive at a tutorial clutching a set of six W.H. Auden teatowels instead of his Collected Poems.
When we treat poems as information rather than as manufactured product, they paradoxically become available for co-option by many more commodifying projects. We are invited to see only content, not form; even if the lineation of the poem as it appears on auntie's fridge ornament is retained with a scholarly accuracy, its form is not the same. A Shakespeare sonnet iced onto a birthday cake is not the same sonnet as you'd read on one page of an Oxford edition of his complete sonnets, even if it still has fourteen lines and the words are in the right order. There is some "thing" to read, but there are also plentiful signs, of greater or lesser clarity, about how we might read, and what we might read against, or in relation to. A poem printed inside a greeting card is telling us all kinds of things about how we might encounter it as readers; the same poem signals differently, is doing different work to different ends, in a hand-stitched, letterpressed chapbook, or on a dirty Kindle. Form is its own meaning, far above and beyond acting as a kind of container for information. Different poets may have different attitudes about whether or not they're happy for their work to be encountered on a t-shirt, or quoted in a self-help book, or spoken at the memorial service for a deceased member of the Royal Family, or used in an A-level exam paper, or borrowed for a sleevenote by Sting, but I think very few would view all of these circumstances as broadly alike and therefore basically irrelevant to careful consideration.
This is all by way of a slightly laborious preamble into a reflection on a conversation I half-wittingly initiated on Twitter earlier. Among the people I follow is Simon McBurney, who had tweeted to alert us to an upcoming opportunity to watch Complicite's A Disappearing Number at the cinema, broadcast thus under the auspices of National Theatre Live. This is an increasingly visible strategy, which I first became aware of a few years ago when a performance by the New York Metropolitan Opera was transmitted live to certain arthouse cinemas in the UK and presumably worldwide. I slightly winced then, but I don't really care about opera on the whole. I do care, if only for lingering sentimental reasons, about Complicite, and I felt really angry and nauseated by their decision to permit A Disappearing Number to be disseminated like this. In my crosspatch tweet I described the whole idea as "greedy, wrongheaded and treacherous", which prompted some equally forceful rebuttals. So perhaps I had better say something about what I meant, and why I feel so strongly about this.
First of all, I said "greedy" because it seems pretty clear to me that it's an arrangement driven by commercial rather than artistic imperatives. As it stands -- though surely this will change as the practice becomes increasingly common -- nobody makes theatre in order for it to be seen at the cinema, even if they themselves would rather be directing movies. Nobody who defended the practice on Twitter earlier was prepared to say it was any better than "second best", a sort of consolation prize for those who for whatever reason are unable to attend a theatre performance in person. In a way I suppose it's like a prosthetic auditorium: we're all used to sitting in the cheap seats in order to attend a performance and having to endure a steep angle or "restricted view"; in this extension of that idea, thousands of additional seats are put in, where the view is so totally and utterly restricted that you can see and hear nothing at all of the live event, but video and audio are relayed via a big screen (and speakers) instead. Tolerable, obviously, as an experience in itself, and perhaps if the experience is tolerable then it doesn't matter that the impetus for it is principally financial. Except that too is not just some negligible element of the context, it's part of the form itself: so, we may choose to accept or deplore that for what it is: a formal decision.
"Wrongheaded" precisely because it treats a piece of theatre as information, as streamable content. This information, it's supposed, can travel to us by any route and arrive intact and coherent in front of us for our reception. It's this that I fundamentally disagree with, more than anything. It is premised on the notion that the content of the work is its most important aspect -- not that the content is there to help us come into a productive relationship with the form --and that by extension it is worth sacrificing the form of the encounter in which the content is principally designed to be shared, in order for the content to reach more people and therefore make more money. Certainly there are plenty of precedents for this that, again, we gladly tolerate. Very few people can attend the finals of Wimbledon, for example, and the event is now staged with the televisual experience, rather than the experience of live attendance, presumably uppermost in the organisers' minds; I might envy those who manage to snap up centre court tickets, but my home viewing experience feels like "second best" only in a pretty theoretical sense. Lots of things are now staged principally in the interests of remote viewers rather than active participants, from political conventions to award ceremonies to acts of war. How we feel about all these different examples need not be too carefully teased out because actually the precedents are irrelevant. Our concern is quite specific: it has to do with the broadcasting of theatre events to audiences outside the theatre where they're taking place: and so we have to ask specific questions about the value of form in theatre.
My contention is that the cultural meaning of theatre is in its form, much more than in individual instances of its content. Personally, I am devoted to theatre as a site of cultural production exactly because of its formal and structural features; and furthermore, I observe that in those theatre works that I most admire and enjoy, the content of the work is ineluctably bound up with -- and helps us to apprehend our relationship to -- its form. There could hardly be a better example than The Author: but I'm thinking here not necessarily about obviously formally innovative and engaged pieces in particular, but the form of theatre more generally. The most significant and characteristic formal elements can be simply itemised, and each on its own sounds (unavoidably, I'm afraid) like a bit of a cliche. Like this:
We gather together in one place, the audience and the performers and other makers; we experience something together that is happening live and is vulnerable to all the unpredictable contingencies of live performance; and when the constructed encounter has been played out, it is gone. Those are the three basic tenets of theatre as presently distinct from other forms.
Of course there is a fourth. These things matter. They are consequential in our lived experience. That is: they matter during the show, but they also matter before and after the show. They matter in the particular encounter that we have, in the course if the performance that we have gathered to see and make together; bu they matter also more widely, more constantly, in that we use them generally as ways of describing what theatre is and is not, and what therefore it might be in our lives, in the cultural and social situations in which we live.
And there is, also of course, a fifth. It matters that these things matter. It matters to us, it's important. We want to know, we need to know, when we go to the theatre, that our presence in that space at that time matters, is of consequence. We want to know that if a cat wanders onto the stage, it will be acknowledged, just as if furious pelicans invaded the auditorium, it would have repercussions for the continuance of the performance. If we shout obscenities they will be heard by the actors. If our phone goes off it will be heard, and Richard Griffiths will remonstrate with us picturesquely. It matters to our reading of the performance, and of the situation in which it unfolds, that the encounter in which we're participating is ephemeral and not precisely repeatable -- is not, in other words, an object. Above all, it matters that theatre can have a strong claim to an ethical basis for its activity, simply by dint of its representing a social space that has no fundamental obligation to replicating the power relations that exist outside that space. Those basic elements come together to create a space where we can really see and hear each other, and where that process of seeing and hearing is shaped not only by the content of the work we came to pay attention to, but also by the form that holds us together in its image.
To broadcast a theatre performance to a cinema audience, therefore, is not 'second best': it proposes a fundamentally and wholly different relationship between audience and work, and to be more precise, a fundamentally and wholly antitheatrical one. Theatricality inheres in form and structure, not in content. Content is endlessly translatable (for all that it changes meaning, at least fractionally, with every crossing of a formal gap), but form is distinct. None of the tenets of theatre hold up for an audience in a cinema. The actors do not know and anyway cannot functionally care that the audience is there; the spectators cannot contribute to or participate in any way in the making of the live event -- even their attention on it does not matter, except in so far as they may by various means cause disturbance to their neighbours in the cinema auditorium; their experience is of an object over which they have no control and in relation to which they have no responsibility. People in the Twitmilieu today were saying that cinema broadcasts were to be welcomed because they increase access: but, access to what? Not access to theatre, certainly. Theatre is a set of formal and structural arrangements which are wholly and entirely absent from the broadcast experience. Access, perhaps, then, I suppose, at a stretch, not to theatre, but to an advert for theatre. But a really stupid, deceitful advert, a thoroughly dishonest representation of what theatre is, what it means as a kind of social act. Everything that can be represented by the broadcast package is everything theatre is actually, finally, distinctively not.
So, no, it's not quite theatre, agree my tweeting interlocutors, and no one says it is; it's different, but it's OK. What's happening is a blurring of formal distinctions, and that blurring is exciting and productive and not to be feared. Well, sure, I have a modicum of sympathy for that. Despite all of the foregoing, I don't really like the border policemen who patrol the boundaries of artforms and insist that such-and-such "isn't theatre" or "isn't poetry" or whatever. Now more than ever, the aesthetic life of theatre is one of intense and restless hybridity, of borrowings and cross-pollinations. But to suggest that its formal basis might be similarly blurred is to radically reduce the capacity of theatre to be expressive of a particular ethical programme: the fecundity of the blur is not only value-neutral, it's inimical to precision: and it is this effect that I'm thinking about when I call this reach into broadcasting "treacherous". Complicite's embracing of this means of distributing their work (or, rather, a flat effigy of their work) is not simply a matter for them and their own business model and artistic priorities; it is a betrayal of the sector out of which they emerged, because it endorses the adaptation of theatre practice to market imperatives, not at the periphery where most such compromises are struck (in accepting corporate sponsorship, for example, or selling merchandise), but at the heart of the formal promise that theatre distinctively makes. It has a particularly Blairite quality, it seems to me: an eagerness to reach the widest possible catchment by eliminating, trading away, precisely those elements that defined the message you were entrusted with communicating in the first place. Complicite have long been on this journey, and in a way their work is now in some respects for the remote cinema audience rather more than for the invested theatre attendee. I saw A Disappearing Number from the high-up cheap seats in the Barbican, a point-of-view from which most of its composite images simply didn't read coherently, because they're targeted at those sitting in the expensive central stalls seats; presumably the cinema broadcasts are taken from cameras better placed to see the action than those of us who value theatre but who aren't sufficiently valued by the markets in which we participate to have sufficient disposable income to pay top whack at the Barbican. This plus the heavy reliance on video projection in the content and aesthetic of A Disappearing Number (which dismays me emphatically not because of the absorption of new technologies into the working language, but because of the timecoding this apparatus imposes on the operation of the show and the consequent reduction in the latitudes of its liveness) makes me pretty certain that Simon McBurney has little interest any more in any work-surface other than the screen: which leaves us a sadly long way stranded from the stage language of The Street of Crocodiles, the show from which most of my sense of theatre was initially derived. Complicite, like Robert Wilson, say, signal nothing more now, at least in this case, than a theatre of conspicuous money, power and control. Ditto most West End product, of course, which at least has few ulterior pretences; ditto the antitheatrical performance work of someone like Marina Abramovic: an unusual figure to file alongside the likes of Michael Ball, perhaps, or the cast of Les Mis, but in all of these cases there is an imposition of severe constraint on the relational and contingent aspects of theatre form, in favour of a quite contrary focus on 'performance': on a strenuous, possibly virtuosic, close fidelity to a particular object-like target or template, rather than to the "live" event.
Theatre needs you to be present, and it needs you to examine your own presence, or at least to be actively present, whatever that might mean in any particular instance. That need may often be impossible to fulfil, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong need, or that the need should be adjusted downwards until it's less impossible for more people. Theatre -- as opposed to a perfectly valid outreach discourse around theatre -- is for those who show up; it is not at the craven service of those who don't opt in. Granted, it is certainly true that there are a great many people who cannot show up: who cannot, for example, go to see A Disappearing Number in the theatre, because they live far away from where it's playing, and logistically and financially it's therefore out of reach. And there are all sorts of cool things I'm missing this autumn because I'm away on tour, so I'm not entirely mired in a privileged Londoner's worldview in saying what follows. The answer to access problems associated with geographical remoteness is not cinema broadcasts, it's investment in grassroots theatre-making in those communities, and strengthened support for regional touring networks; the answer to access problems associated with financial hardship -- indeed most access problems, period -- is to minimise economic barriers to entry, not to charge a bit less for access to something so compromised as to be meaningless in theatre terms. Why, in the name of access and audience development, show presently disconnected audiences misleading adverts for theatre experiences that we've already established they're circumstantially unable to participate in anyway? It's -- structurally -- a bit like that retina-burning episode when Baroness Chalker, the then Minister for Overseas Development, visited a Kurdish refugee camp in 1991 and was filmed handing out branded chocolate bars -- Milky Ways, wasn't it? -- to the starving kids. These chocolate bars were food, weren't they?, she said, and anyway, they'd been donated so it was appropriate to distribute them. Nobody on her team seemed to have questioned what certainly appeared to incredulous observers to be a pretty dire failure to connect the content of the stunt with the formal qualities of its context.
The "Live" in National Theatre Live is an absolute cheat, it seems to me, somewhere between a sleight-of-hand manoeuvre and a shallow wank fantasy. The "liveness" that we bang on about as makers actually has very little to do with, for example, the liveness of a live tv broadcast, where you're aware that the image you see is being directly relayed from the event in question. That sense of liveness is an incredibly meagre one compared with the complex of elements and sensations and apprehensions that constitute an alert theatre audience's experience of what liveness means with regard to their own individual and communal presence and the passage of time that underscores their shifting relations with a non-commodity artwork. The problem is, most "theatre", disastrously, doesn't know what to do with that liveness either. The idea of broadcasting theatre into cinemas ought to return what my old ZX Spectrum would have reported as a "syntax error", but it mostly doesn't. Ultimately, the problem isn't theatre being cynically transmogrified into an essentially formless information set for broadcasting on whatever platform, be it cinema or YouTube or teatowel; the problem is, if it can be subjected to that manner of adaptation, it was never really theatre to begin with.
An interesting response to this post from John Wyver of Illuminations (who make arts films) over here.