Heidi R. Bean, Acts of Poetry: American Poets' Theater and the Politics of Performance

Eric Keenaghan
2022 American Literary History  
Contrary to how it sounds, poets' theater is not just drama written in verse. As Heidi Bean argues in Acts of Poetry: American Poets' Theater and the Politics of Performance, it is an altogether different literary form. Continuing today, largely through practitioners of experimental forms like Language writing, poets' theater emerged at midcentury on the East and West Coasts as part of the New American Poetry, the loose postwar and cold war constellation of poets associated with the New York
more » ... ool, Black Mountain, the Beats, and the Boston and San Francisco Renaissances. Writers blended the antinormative linguistic and formal practices of modernism with critiques of the American mainstream. They shared modernist playwrights' "antitheatrical" bias, by taking "aim at theater's mimetic strategies, especially the impersonating actor" (22). Think Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Additionally, since midcentury, poets' theater, to meet its "explicit goal to activate the audience" ( 24 ), also has approached language "as a tool of antirealist critique" (10). Thus, it is more performative than most of its modernist antecedents. To shift the norms of social signification, dramatic conventions like story and character give way to embodiment, gesture, and poetic speech acts. Like jazz, poets' theater features "presentation over representation through an improvisatory aesthetic" (6). With an "explicit emphasis on language as poiesis" (25), or as the generation of new contexts through speech acts, the creators of poets' theater have "explored the relationship between this notion of poetry and social life via a positioning and repositioning of the audience" (25). The result is a dual "reference to, as well as critique of, a system of representation with far-reaching political consequences" (6).
doi:10.1093/alh/ajac129 fatcat:3zcxc45hm5cfvcpsgndl3ltu3a