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Audible Form

Angus Brown

Peter Gizzi Poetry Reading
American Literature Research Seminar
17 May
Rothermere American Institute, Oxford

About this time last year the experimental poet Peter Gizzi gave a short reading at the Albion Beatnik on Walton Street where he read mostly from one of the many A4 manuscripts that went into Threshold Songs (2011), his fifth book of poetry. Last week Gizzi came back to Oxford and on Thursday he gave a reading at the Rothermere American Institute. This time, when it came to Threshold Songs, he read his poems from between the fuscous green covers of the hardback edition.

Part of what has attracted critics to Gizzi’s poetry is its combination of lyric distillation and dense literary allusion. On the page, these citational shards can often be difficult for the uninitiated to detect. The good news for the novice is that, in person, Gizzi’s abiding excitement about other poets and other writers is infectious. In asides, answers, and in conversation, the poet gave straightforward and generous recommendations for further reading: Simone Weil, Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, R. F. Langley, and the letters of Abraham Lincoln were all added to my reading list at least. Gizzi set about reading his own work with a few dabs from Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003). Beginning with ‘Beginning with a phrase from Simone Weil’ and ‘Overtakelessness’, he moved on to the beautiful triptych ‘Stung’, from The Outernationale (2007) and soon accelerated towards and remained among Threshold Songs.

Song itself and how to sing preoccupy his most recent book. Gizzi read “Lullaby”, “Basement Song”, “Oversong”, “Undersong”, and – in perhaps the most affecting reading of the evening – “Apocrypha” or ‘a song of dubious origin’. In hearing these songs sung – or spoken – the most striking thing to rediscover was that Gizzi’s voice reproduces not just the words of his work but a strange approximation of its form. Line breaks become a breath, a half breath, or a subliminal glottal hesitation; white space on a page becomes quiet in a room. This careful delivery translates form from the visible into the audible.

After reading, Gizzi stressed that the line break in his work operates at the beginning of the line as well as the end. He suggested that this double breaking gives him a helical imprint to work around. These lyrics, then, can be imagined as a volute poetry that edges toward and then away from certainty, incrementally approaching an inexpressible meaning. It’s probably obvious that the experience of reading or hearing this work is a difficult thing to pin down. Perhaps I can start to give an approximation of last Thursday evening and Peter Gizzi’s poetry with two lines from “Bardo”, the poem he finished with: ‘No “isn’t it amazing,” no / none of that.’ Well, there was some of that. And it was and it is.

Angus Brown is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Jesus College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor of the Oxonian Review.