I've been trying for a long time to put into words the unique quality of Rochelle Owens' way of reading her own work. What seemed easy when I first agreed to Karl's request has proved to be unexpectedly difficult. However, since the final deadline has all but passed, the following will have to do.
I first read a poem of Rochelle's sometime in 1961, or very late 1960, when I read her "Humble Humble Pinate" in Trobar 2. 1 was struck then by what seemed to be similarities with my own chance-generated work, especially the numbered Asymmetries I was then writing. There seemed to be extreme disjunctions between lines and even parts of lines. There seemed to be no continuing referential center. I even surmised that she might have used a nonlogical, nonsyntactical, or even an aleatoric system to make the poem. Tho there seemed to be emotion involved, it seemed continually to be broken and interrupted, as if some collaging technique had supervened between the original emotion and the final work. It was puzzling.
I don't know how soon after reading it that I first heard Rochelle read. It was either at the Tenth St. Coffeehouse, where many of us first read in public in 1960 and early 1961, or at its successor, Les Deux Megots on 7th St.
What struck me most was the great difference between her style of reading and that of most of the other poets there. My own way was also quite different from the others', but at the other pole from Rochelle's. I was then involved almost exclusively in work generated by (relatively) objective chance systems. Very little personal emotion was involved. I read in a conversational tone, usually, carefully observing punctuation, line endings, and my own indications for longer silences. When I raised my voice above or lowered it below this neutral tone, it was because I had voice regulations in the text or was following a method of interpreting chance-given text features: for instance, in the Asymmetries, enclosing punctuation caused soft speech or whispers; emphatic typography caused loud speech or shouts.
Many of the others who read with us tended, if anything, to a rather diffident delivery. I was especially struck by what seemed to be a refusal to use the normal end-of-statement intonation (double-bar juncture). Some of the best poets seemed consciously to avoid dropping their voices at periods. This made for a peculiar feeling of tentativeness, in everything they'said. Some raised their voices slightly at the end of each sentence—as if they were mildly questioning their own statements. Others kept their voices more or less level or raised their voices very slightly, as if their periods were commas. And sometimes these intonational patterns reminded me of those affected by many ministers and rabbis, and they brought a feeling of sententiousness even into verses whose meanings were not at all sententious.
Not that there was no vehemence! Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and their friends had been giving public readings for several years, and their manner and matter were widely—if often insensitively—imitated. Indeed, I often thought that the tentativeness or diffidence seemingly displayed in the intonational patterns of many of the better poets were results of conscious efforts to distinguish themselves from the horde of pseudobeats. But the "beat" vehemence usually had a prophetic or oratorical tone—a somewhat impersonal or universal anger, indignation, or ecstasy.
Rochelle, when I did hear her, seemed different from everybody else, She seemed angry often, but her anger did not seem tied to large social claims. And she did things no one else did. Even I was not singing then, but she had snatches of song amid her vehement sentences and ellipses. Also, she seemed dramatic—even "theatrical"—in a way quite different from the personal-prophetic drama of the beats and their imitators. And sometimes she said things outrageous to our radicalib sensibilities in her highly dramatic way—for instance, she or her personae openly expressed hostile feelings toward certain national groups—Germans, Hungarians, or even "European ladies." But more than anything, I was often impressed by an unexplained—and seemingly inexplicable—excess in her vehemence. Neither her subject or what she was saying about it seemed to be commensurate with the strength of feeling—anger, ridicule, indignation, or feelings less specifiable—with which she said the words. Only when I read Toby's article printed elsewhere in this issue did I begin to understand what was involved: a kind of "controlled hysteria."
Toby makes clear, and I also want to, that "hysteria" is used here in its "dictionary sense"—not that of Freud—"an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, often characterized by irrationality, laughter, weeping, etc.... intimidating, inappropriate behavior." What I think he means—what I mean—by "controlled hysteria" is that the speaker, whether the poet, a persona, or a blend of both, while often incredibly vehement, threatens to cross over the line from vehemence to uncontrollable emotional outburst, but never actually crosses that line. This arouses a feeling of suspense even in those who do not realize whence that feeling arises: a very "theatrical" experience.
Thus Rochelle's highly prolific and successful involvement in theatre—her many publications and productions of plays—was foreshadowed in the way she spoke her poems and monologues in the early 60's. But in the plays themselves, as well as the poems, this quality of controlled hysteria has always been evident. And I'm not at all sure of its meaning.
I mean that I do not think it at all self-evident that this quality in the poems mirrors her own state of mind. I don't think that anyone has developed sensitive enough methods of psychological analysis to be able adequately to infer the states of artists' minds from their works. Altho correspondences between features of artworks and symptoms, dreams, and other productions of persons undergoing psychotherapy are easy to find if one looks hard enough, the occurrence of such features is highly ambiguous. Thus the "controlled hysteria" in Rochelle's poems, plays, and personal performances may serve any of several psychological functions other than mirroring her personality. It may well be that making art that embodies a controlled hysteria helps her to integrate powerful conflicting forces that might otherwise overwhelm her. But this (or whatever other psychological fimction it serves) is not the meaning of this quality in her art.
Granted that this is a way to get thru the calloused sensibilities of hearers and readers to the live nerves—to make a "sneak attack... against reader sensibility" (Toby). But why do it by threatening or seeming to threaten to explode in our faces? My guess is that her theatrical intuition has led her to draw upon one of the most pervasive modern feelings—the half-conscious fear that "the bomb" may fall any minute, that a sniper may open up on us from some tower or skyscraper, that the nuclear electrical generating plant or chemical factory may blow up.
And as with all credible threats, they are backed up with action, and they are all the more credible in that the actions are not meant as threatening. At the last of her readings I attended,—at the Dharmadhatu loft in New York on 29 of March 1975—Rochelle did three things: she chantedsang, really—a Jewish prayer which continually rose in pitch and intensity to the end. I'm not sure how long she has been doing this, but I only heard her once before—at the America A Prophecy reading at the Cubiculo in NY in May 1974, when the intensity became nearly unbearable and I had continually to decrease the recording volume of the new tape recorder I was first using that night because the dial needles continually pressed against the overload limits at the far right. My reaction then was one of fear and wonderment, but I don't know whether I'd've felt fear if I hadn't been recording on my machine. I don't think I felt fear in March, altho I was also recording then, but the intensity never became quite as great then: in May the experience was shattering; in March it was nearly so, but not quite.
After the prayer, she read two sections from her Karl Marx Play, the "Leadbelly-Rockerfeller" section and Karl Marx's prayer to Yahveh. In the first, the violence of sarcasm in the characterization of John D. Rocer-Rockerfeller, Sr.—both in the words and imagery and in her manner of delivery—was almost unbelieveable. She was not only hurling down this idol of classical capitalism—she was trampling the shards and grinding them to fine powder under her heels. It was the rage of the assassin who stabs the victim's corpse fifty times after it's dead. Finally, in Marx's prayer, the hysteria becomes one of contradiction and anguish within the philosopher's soul as he addresses the God he denies with questions he knows he'll never answer. Here the hysteria both repels us from the persona and makes us sympathize with him at the same time. Here, finally, the overwhelming vehemence and nearly uncontrolled hysteria become completely appropriate and need no explanation.