P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.26 - July 2018
Poetry Aloud, Part 7:
Page vs. Stage
Page vs. Stage
I’ve referred here often to a literature class I taught for years called Poetry Aloud. For my final column (for now!) in this series pondering how poetry is performed, I’d like to reflect a bit on the course and some of the issues it explored. Each time teaching it I began by describing its purposes, because they differed in important ways from what students were used to in literature classes, and certainly from what I experienced in my student days. Above all, I designed Poetry Aloud as a course in which students could practice the appreciation of poetry as both an oral and an aural art—by which I mean not just that good poetry sounds pretty, but that much of its meaning often comes less from what it says and more from how it sounds. On opening day I never failed to quote Duke Ellington’s immortal title, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.”
Typically, literature classes focus on a poem’s themes, scrutinzing various aspects of meaning, whether historical, biographical, symbolic, psychological, mythic, philosophical, or as related to such things as gender, class, race, politics, or formal properties. And these are all fascinating and valuable things to study; my class definitely included them too. But too often in the academic world the key ingredient of “swing” has been neglected. So my course put poetic music itself in the forefront rather than the background of study.
Thus, it was a course in listening as much as anything else. Speaking and listening go hand in hand, naturally. We spent time reading aloud ourselves, and also listening to others do so, then discussing issues of performance and what poet John Ciardi once called “how a poem means,” as opposed to what it means. It was not a class in oral interpretation per se, but this ear-training was key to everything else.
We ranged widely, beginning with the real basics of how poetic sounds and rhythms work on a listener, creating tone, manipulating emotion, utilizing connotation, ironic contrast, and so forth. We examined assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, and all the building blocks of sound. We looked both at the traditional prosody of English poetry and at the free verse revolution. We devoted a lot of attention to the ancient connections of poetry with music—normally including a unit on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as well as ones on Beat Generation experiments with jazz and Langston Hughes’s blues and jazz poems. We debated whether popular song lyrics “count” as poetry. We compared different musical settings of classic poems, such as the many versions of Blake’s songs, or albums like Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep or Kris Delmhorst’s Strange Conversation. Guest poets visted our class to read and discuss their work as well as our course themes, such as Catherine Cofell and Bruce Dethlefsen, performing as Obvious Dog their wonderful blends of music and poetry. And we listened to oodles of recordings of poets.
Running through everything we did was exploration of the oral tradition itself—the many ways, shifting over time and place, that poetic meanings and performance styles are influenced by audience expectations and responses; and the ways in which poetry both creates and is influenced by its various communities.
We usually concluded the course with extended examination of recent and sometimes controversial developments, including spoken word, slam, hip hop, stand up poetry, and so on. Visits to our class and readings by poets such as Patricia Smith, Marc Turcotte, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, and Brenda Cardenas provided students with powerful “live” examples of spoken word and stand up poetry at its best.
Years ago when I began teaching Poetry Aloud I was no great fan of slam and performance poetry, I confess. But I felt a duty to include such forms in order to give students the broadest possible picture. The more I studied and listened and discussed poems with students, however, the more I realized that the common academic prejudice against such popular forms makes little sense. Since then I have found myself saying thousands of times that since poetry began as an oral art, these new developments constitute a return to and extension of tradition, not a diluting or cheapening of it. After all, poetry began as “performance poetry,” and only later went silent on the printed page.
I don’t have the space in this column to argue the point fully, but to those who have suffered through a few bad open mics and come to the conclusion that spoken word poetry is generally inferior to page poetry, I would simply say go get one of the many anthologies of this genre. Read some of the best poets who came out of the slam or performance poetry world, and see if you don’t change your mind, as I did. I am thinking of poets as different from each other as Patricia Smith, Taylor Mali, Jack McCarthy, Sekou Sundiata, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Willie Perdomo, Tara Betts, Jeffrey McDaniel, Saul Williams, Nate Marshall, Mindy Nettifee, Olivia Gatwood, Marc Turcotte, and Sarah Kay. And yes, all of them, in my opinion, work well on the page as well as the stage. You can buy their books.
Over the years in teaching my course I sampled many good anthologies of oral poetry, but my favorite by far was The Spoken Word Revolution Redux, edited by Mark Eleveld. Many of the poets mentioned above appear, as well as others. The book comes with a CD for listening to some of the poems; and it also includes a number of fascinating essays about the history and aesthetic of spoken word. I highly recommend it.
My favorite anthology for sampling the academic side of things was Stand Up Poetry, edited by Charles Harper Webb. Not all the poets included are well known, but most mainstream poetry fans will recognize names such as Billy Collins, Lucille Clifton, Kim Addonizio, Denise Duhamel, James Tate, Pattiann Rogers, Dorianne Laux, Stephen Dunn, and Wanda Coleman. I recommend that one too.
One interesting thing about these two anthologies is that there is no overlap of poets between the two, even though they both purport to represent the most vital contemporary poetry. Both are fine anthologies, in fact. Still, that lack of common ground is worth pondering. Webb in his introduction provides a handy yardstick for defining what he means by Stand Up Poetry (a term he invented that unfortunately doesn’t seem to have caught on). It’s worth looking at the list of traits that in his view characterize such poetry:
• natural language
• flights of fancy
• strong individual voice
• emotional punch
• close relationship to fiction
• use of urban and popular culture
• wide open subject matter
If that sounds like a pretty good definition of spoken word poetry also, I would agree. In terms of poetic style, it’s hard to see a great difference. For instance, it would be hard to argue that Patricia Smith’s poetry, from any period, doesn’tdisplay humor, performabilty, strong individual voice, emotional punch, urban and popular culture, and so forth. And what about Lucille Clifton? Wouldn’t she have been likely to do quite well at a slam with her accessible, deceptively simple, and powerful personal lyrics? Yet as noted the books’ tables of contents do not contain any poets in common. Why would this be so? The answer speaks to a couple of the key things I learned in teaching my course.
To get at why these books don’t share more poets, while obviously overlapping in their aims, you have to pull back from individual poets and poems and examine two larger matters. The first is historical. Both the “school” poets and the “street” poets, as they are sometimes called, are part of a movement toward democratization and popularizing of twentieth-century poetry. In reaction to what is now a century-old tradition of modernist difficulty, there was, beginning at least by the 1930s, a counter-tradition of accessibility, a desire to speak to the common reader, not just the elite educated class. Thus, at the same time as English professors and critics were analyzing modernist masterpieces by Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Crane, and others, poets such as Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, and William Carlos Williams were creating very different masterpieces in a more populist vein. The aim was, in some sense, to bridge the gap between high literature and more popular fare. (Yes, Williams also wrote dense and difficult poems.)
Then after World War II, everything more or less exploded in many directions at once. With the paperback book revolution and the rapid expansion of mass higher education after the War, slowly but surely there emerged into the previously elite precincts of the academic world many previously under-represented voices, including women, ethnic and racial minorities, working class poets, immigrants, and so forth. Naturally poetry responded to these trends, even as dense and difficult “academic” poetry continued to be written and honored. The Beat Generation was one manifestation of the counter-trend, and so were the African American poets who increasingly began to be noticed by the mainstream in the 1960s and beyond.
Both Stand Up Poetry and The Spoken Word Revolution, and the communities they chronicle, arose from this counter-tradition. That history explains much of the overlap and commonality in their styles and aims.
At the same time, matters of poetic audience explain much of the differences. I’ve already mentioned the handy if oversimplified binary of “street” vs. “school” poets, which is useful for discussion if it isn’t pushed too far. Despite the eventual prominence of once maverick voices like Ginsberg or Snyder in mainstream academic anthologies, and despite slowly increasing representation of women and other previously ignored categories of poets, there persisted in many minds the belief that poetry belonged to the people, and the full diversity of American people was still not being represented adequately by mainstream publishers, universities, academic journals, anthologies, and so forth. This belief was quite accurate, in my view, as of thirty years ago. And though much progress has been made since slam poetry originated in the 1980s, the rift between street and school remains, persisting even as much mainstream poetry today is highly accessible, performable, and so on. The two camps, though they look more and more like each other, still often aren’t on speaking terms.
It’s an odd situation. To be sure, there are still plenty of self-consciously experimental poems being written, in and out of academia, which the common reader would find utterly inaccessible, if they could be persuaded to read them. If a word like “academic” can be used without negative connotations, such poetry is definitely academic no matter where the author works. Many Americans accordingly still think of poetry in general as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. But at the same time, the proliferation of creative writing programs in schools of all levels has produced an abundance of the kind of stand up poets that Charles Harper Webb described—writing highly audience-friendly verse.
Once in a great while one of them, like Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, or Maya Angelou, breaks through and is noticed by the reading public, selling many books in the process. But every poet familiar with the MFA world could name you twenty or more poets who are just as good, and just as readable, as Billy Collins, but whom you’ve probably never heard of. By the same token MFA poets are frequently surprised to learn that there are spoken word poets that they’venever heard of, touring the country reading to sizable audiences, selling quite a few books, developing a fan base beyond their own wildest dreams. There are presses like Button Poetry, Manic D Press, and Write Bloody Publishing, busy publishing books by poets as yet unnoticed by Norton, Graywolf, or HarperCollins.
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t some identifiable differences between the worlds of stand up poetry and spoken word. To overgeneralize, at slams and performance poetry events you’ll find a great deal of what I call “identity poetics”—poems and poets exploring issues of race, gender, social class, ethicity, sexual orientation, and so forth. Such themes are expected, honored, and promoted. And while those same themes are not absent from stand up poetry, by any means, they are not necessarily expected or promoted by their communities. Likewise, there are some fashions of performing styles that are more common in one camp than the other. Another essay could be written about such differences and distinctions.
Still, I have often been struck, though no longer surprised, by the rift between school and street poets, because in so many ways they share goals and stylistic affinities. If the poetry world were a rational place, Mary Oliver and Lucille Clifton would be anthologized side by side with poets like Patricia Smith and Taylor Mali, though this still happens all too seldom. By the time I taught my final Poetry Aloud class I allowed myself to hope that perhaps these two separate worlds were starting to see each other more clearly and accurately. I may be proven wrong, but that remains my hope. Academic and street poets, as slam poet Jack McCarthy once wrote, have much to teach each other. He put it in memorable terms: they need our vigor, and we need their rigor, he declared. I would certainly agree.
I grew up on elite academic poetry, and I love it dearly. But there’s no reason one cannot love both T. S. Eliot and Langston Hughes.
©2018 David Graham
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