POPULAR CULTURE March 2002

Poetry Out Loud

One of the biggest changes in modern poetry is its escape from the page to the performance
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Poetry nowadays, with its ability to stimulate both the eye and the ear, needs to be taken in by both at the same time, whether you read it aloud to yourself or have learned to hear it as you read silently. Poetry also has a strange power to evoke persons and events lost in memory as well as to illuminate the self. The epics we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey reached their audiences—most of whom could not read but knew the Homeric legends well—through the ear, by firelight and torchlight. The range of the bard's voice limited the ancient audience to the number of people who could gather round. By the time Chaucer had written The Canterbury Tales, in 1400, and T. S. Eliot The Waste Land, in 1922, audiences had increased in literacy but were still restricted: before readers could share in it, Chaucer's poetry had to be copied out by scribes, Eliot's to pass through the hands of publishers and booksellers. Eventually, the poet as performer began to woo the public again. Dylan Thomas fifty years ago, drunk or sober, declaimed his poems to large crowds, which later bought his recordings to hear him again. Robert Zimmerman, perhaps in order to attract a similarly devoted public, would take the name Bob Dylan.

Editorial writers like to claim, without a lot of evidence, that "poetry is on the move." They rejoice that Beowulf is a best seller at last. Does this mean that poetry and democracy have come face to face? That poetry is no longer stuck under the thumb of the learned or even the literate? It might. With recent developments in technology; with poems traveling around the world on the Internet without price, tariff, or tax; with cyberwatchers able to encounter a fresh poem every day of the year, selected from new books and magazines, at poems.com, poetry may be gaining lots of customers. Poems new to print can also be heard in their authors' voices at theatlantic.com and other Web sites every month. Changes of fashion in poetry, shifts in its aims, may occur for a thousand reasons having to do with those who create it, but the ways in which poetry reaches its readers and hearers have little to do with the poets themselves. What has changed about poetry in our time is not the art of poetry but the technology of mediation.

In two of the most beautiful lines in all his sonnets, Shakespeare wrote of how even the forces of nature must yield to mortality, and asked, "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?" Between a poem and its audience something as delicately powerful as the action of a flower takes place. Robert Pinsky, during his three, important years as America's poet laureate, tried to nurture that relationship by launching the Favorite Poem Project. He asked all sorts of Americans to choose their favorite poems and tell why they chose them; then he and a co-editor, Maggie Dietz, turned to the printing press (Americans' Favorite Poems, 1999) and the Internet (www.favoritepoem.org) to explore that interaction. A number of those whose favorite poems appear in the printed anthology were filmed for the Web reciting or reading those poems aloud. The ninety-six-year-old Stanley Kunitz, a recent poet laureate, recites a poem he first encountered seventy-five years earlier, Gerard Manley Hopkins's "God's Grandeur." A seven-year-old boy recites, in cheerful singsong, a poem from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. A robust construction worker, perched on the step of an earthmover, reads from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." William Jefferson Clinton, in the White House, delivers a rather stiff rendering of Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn": "By the rude bridge that arched the flood ..."

So poetry survives in print and in memory, but the book version of Americans' Favorite Poems cannot do full justice to why Americans are drawn to those particular poems. The video version, with its extended portraits of some of the choosers, reveals that most of these readers are devoted to a particular poem because something in it reminds them of someone loved—a deceased parent or relative—or of some other loss that can never be repaired. A retired teacher, born in England but recently transplanted to San Francisco, chose to read a Goethe poem, "The Holy Longing," because "There is really no comfort. One doesn't expect one's children to die ... first." A Vietnam veteran, in tears, reads a poem by a fellow veteran, Yusef Komunyakaa, about the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. A family of three embraces a poem by Sylvia Plath called "Polly's Tree" because it reminds them of another Polly, their own daughter, who died of an asthma attack. Not many of these Americans (some of whom are emotionally bound to poems in languages other than English) respond to a poem simply because of its tuneful beauty and grace. No, we tend to think about poetry mainly when it comes time for a wedding or a funeral.

One of the most eloquent responses to a favorite poem is that of Seph Rodney, a young California photographer, who describes his first successful experience with poetry. What woke him up was "Nick and the Candlestick," an incandescent poem by Sylvia Plath about nursing an infant alone in a room, under threat of abandonment.

"It was a date situation," Rodney says. "I wanted to go out with this girl, and I just ended up feeling very bad at the end of it. It didn't work out the way I wanted it to. I just ended up feeling kind of lonely and bereft, I suppose. I came home and I opened this book, and I read some of the poems, and up until that point I think my sense of poetry was that it was always this grandiose ... highfalutin, not very real way of using language. I looked at this stuff and I could not believe it ... It was powerful, it was rough, it was bitter, it was caustic, it was at the same time really urgent about a need for love. I was amazed that here's a woman who was from a very well-heeled New England existence, and the stuff that she wrote really spoke to me, a man, a Jamaican immigrant. You could hardly get two people in the world more distant in terms of social, economic, intellectual, and religious realities. But she spoke to me. She spoke to me, she spoke, it seems, directly to my life. And because of that I have always loved her work ... I love this poem because it is crazy, because it is headlong, it is brutal, and it does not proceed rationally ... And the last line is like this gift from the gods."

If the reader or the listener is stirred by memory, the poet has been stirred by something else. Poets sacrifice much in their lives—affluence, respect, ordinary social recognition—in order to reach an audience, in the hope that their poems, once launched, may survive their experience, even their own death. Poets, like readers, want to articulate their lives by making poems to speak for their own private experience, especially the extremes of grief and joy. It hardly matters to a contemporary poet by what means a poem reaches its audience, whether it be by declamation, print, recording, or the Internet. And when the poem arrives in someone's life, the life can be changed, however slightly.

Last year the Independent Television Service produced and aired (on PBS) an hour-long documentary film called Poetic License. The lives of the young poets whose work it showed have been altered by the urge to create poetry, and they want to testify. This film focused on a series of "teen poetry slams," which show poets and audiences facing one another. (A slam is a competition among performing poets, with judges selected at random from the audience. Adult slams often take place in barrooms or cafés.) These teenage poets were filmed fervidly performing their own compositions for cheering crowds in school auditoriums in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere, as they vied to qualify for the National Teen Poetry Slam in Albuquerque. As one of the several sponsors of the project, Sekou Sundiata (described in the press release for the film as "a high-energy, high-intensity poet and performance artist") says, "The American language has been taken over by all sorts of forces that really created a use of language that I don't think people can trust." The young slammers are trying to reclaim the language. Sensitive and lacking confidence in their social position, they use their language to announce themselves.

Poetry takes teenagers by storm. "About a month and a half ago I met poetry, and it was my ventilation," one says. Another claims that poetry is "just a different rhythm from the one I've been given." Kassy Kayiatos, eighteen, of San Francisco, reveals something of her motive when she says, "The most empowering part [of performing poems] is when you feel validated ... by a room full of people that don't even know you." "We're not just writers: we're the formulators for the anthropologists of tomorrow," another declares.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"Keepin' It Real," (The San Francisco Bay Guardian, February 28, 2001)
"Bay Area teens drop mad science at the 5th annual Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam finals." By Cicely J. Sweed

Many of the young poets wear distinctive hats while performing, as a sort of token of identity, of self-discovery. They stride and gesture like rock stars. Despite their bravado, their language, not surprisingly, sometimes sounds derivative. Asheena McNeil, seventeen, of Harlem, asserts, "Poetry is on the move, and you either jump aboard or you get left behind." The rhythms of hip-hop permeate these poems. The kids are not too young to have learned certain dark truths on their own, such as "Hurting is the only way we know we are still alive." Discovering themselves by discovering one another, the teenagers speak hopefully for their fellows. Thus Tim Arevalo, a stocky eighteen-year-old who won the 1998 San Francisco Teen Poetry Slam, ends up declaiming passionately, to cheers, "We are nothing less than great, the world is waiting, holding their breath. They are waiting, the poems are waiting, holding their breath, waiting for us ... Let's start right here, on this mountaintop where we are gods and goddesses, take my hand if you want. And let's write these poems together."

Short video portraits of contestants reveal the highly varied social and ethnic backgrounds of the kids who find poetry a way of asserting their specialness. Nearly everyone, after all, is part poet at sixteen, no matter how quickly the bloom may fade, and some of these kids find strikingly vivid ways of putting across their innermost concerns and obsessions.

But poetry slams have to be administered by people who know how to organize—and such organizers are not often also young poets. When the Teen Slam competitors from San Francisco and from the Navajo reservation in New Mexico arrived in Albuquerque, they discovered that the competitors from New York City had had to stay home, because no adults had been available to escort them across the country. And although nobody in the competition was any older than eighteen, the organizers had concocted a rule book applicable to adult poetry slams, where juries, sharpened by the smell of competition, are more finicky, if less expert, than those in world figure skating. Poets in bars, after all, tend to recite expansively and are, for good reason, limited to three-minute stints; but the kids in Albuquerque, when faced with such restrictions, cheerfully rebelled and took to the stage as a group to protest adult control. They frolicked in an impromptu dance, and happily chanted their poems to and for one another, delighted to be ignoring the idea of an adult-imposed contest. Competition in the prescribed sense went out the window.

But then, poems do not compete, do they, even though adult poets may? The youngsters clearly thought of this poetry conclave as a love-in. Jason Mateo, eighteen, of San Francisco, said en route to Albuquerque, "It's real good to, like, to chill with poets ... you get all creative together and everyone starts just getting on this whole other level." The young have a lot to overcome, but they believe they can help strengthen one another. They believe they are unlimited in energy. They believe they could be immortal. Whereas poetry's readers and listeners are reminded of the dead, of memory, of loss, the youngsters at their clamorous slams revel in self-discovery, in newness. "O brave new world / That has such people in it!" cries the girl Miranda in The Tempest. To which her father, Prospero, replies, "'Tis new to thee."

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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