Poetry Out Loud

One of the biggest changes in modern poetry is its escape from the page to the performance

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."

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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