March 8, 2002
4:25 PM   Subscribe

Would I climb a mountain, just to read a poem?
Lines from Wordsworth or King, on height of Bear or Stone?
Or "Rock and Hawk" upon the Hook?
No peaks near me to climb,
I'd find a field and recite "the Harvest Bow."
Would you read, and what, and where, and why?
posted by bragadocchio (18 comments total)
I go to the crapper to read my "Playboy."
posted by ColdChef at 4:51 PM on March 8, 2002

No, seriously. This is a great post. Gonna take me a while to get through all of it.
posted by ColdChef at 4:52 PM on March 8, 2002

Coldchef, I guess I should have anticipated that first-impulse response. Especially after the comedy gold on the Alan Greenspan thread (awesome captions), and spoon's metatalk rules for use of humor. But I didn't. Good answer though.
posted by bragadocchio at 8:10 PM on March 8, 2002

I read poetry every day to myself in the bath, on the bus, in bed, making toast. I can read to myself on mountains, and I do when I find myself on a mountain, but poetry as performance, as event, and especially as competition -- the dreaded slam -- is mostly lame. Not all poems are meant to be proclaimed from the mountaintops, literally or figuratively. The best poems need to be read, read again, read slowly again, memorized. Poems that work best as vocal performances, unless the audience already knows the text and is thus performing the works internally more than listening to them, are going to be lightweight, simple, linear.

Now go away.

[Not really. And I know the point is to "increase international awareness of the global importance of mountain ecosystems." I'm just hoping to start something, anything, about poetry. Positive trolling, I hope. I really don't care whether others perform rather than read poetry, as long as they do something with it. But you won't catch me climbing a damned mountain just to read a poem, not when I could have stayed home and read a book of them. With tea and biscuits.]

[Now wait a second. Maybe I do care. I'm tired of seeing audio links to poets reading poems better left silent. It's like offering annotated tracings of paintings for people who couldn't just look at the paintings and enjoy them.]

posted by pracowity at 5:01 AM on March 9, 2002

Speaking as someone who writes poetry occasionally, I find the whole idea of reading it aloud to be anathema. I write for the written form. It's an exercise in conveying a spark to the page, intended to start a fire in the mind of the reader. Something about the way the eye scans the page, and tricks in the getting around thereof ... trickier to start a fire in the cold, thin air? I'd rather climb the mountain with the aim of inspiring a poem. That said, I'm all for increasing environmental awareness. And pierian.
posted by walrus at 5:40 AM on March 9, 2002

Green Eggs and Ham. Anywhere.
posted by jfuller at 5:54 AM on March 9, 2002

Pierian? Oh, sure, make me feel silly and have to run for a dictionary.

> Green Eggs and Ham. Anywhere.
Sam-iambic verse is not
For me, unless I've had a shot
Or two of whisky, so my lid
Comes loose and I become a kid.

Now -- who's been to a slam? Who's participated? I've been to just one, in Cambridge, Mass., at least a decade ago. Can someone convince me that these things are good?

(And did I mention I hate haiku?)
posted by pracowity at 6:13 AM on March 9, 2002

...for instance, here is Anne Sexton reading 'All My Pretty Ones' and a couple of other poems on a Salon page. If you're interested in poetry, it's interesting to hear her voice, but her deadpan delivery adds anything to the poem. The article says "she was lauded by audiences as a glamorous and exciting performer of her work." Hmm. I suppose, as they say, that you had to be there.

I chose this example because I made the mistake of listening to it once before, and now I hear her voice when I try to read the poem.

The alternative to the monotone delivery, though, is, to me, much worse. A theatrical delivery -- saying it demonstratively, as if she means it and it matters to her in a stagy way -- would add something that isn't necessarily in the poem, especially if the reader is not the writer. I have a recording of Keats's greatest hits performed by some bloody actor who just gets in the way with his mistaken breathlessness.
posted by pracowity at 6:52 AM on March 9, 2002

A poem that isn't meant to be read aloud is a poem that's incomplete. I'm not talking about poetry readings, or poetry slams. Too many elements of poetry depend upon sound rather than sight gags.

I came to the dialoguepoetry site through the NY Times article I linked to above, in which the author decided to hike up a nearby hill by himself, and read a poem to the empty air. To many people, myself included, poetry is personal, and the concept of performance wasn't the intent behind its creation. But the idea of finding a place, and a poem that somehow seemed appropriate to each other was really intriquing, like the reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech from Stone Mountain.
posted by bragadocchio at 9:23 AM on March 9, 2002

Anybody else note the rather surprising biographical details about Dr. King's life in the dialogue poetry site? (Clearly a straightforward mistake, but I did a bit of a cartoonish doubletake as I scrolled down the page).
posted by BT at 1:58 PM on March 9, 2002

A poem that isn't meant to be read aloud is a poem that's incomplete.

No "complete" poetry for the deaf, I take it then?

A counterexample to your assertion might be the masterwork of the late Armand Schwerner, The Tablets, which is a set of connected poems, which in total fabricate a set of lost texts from a mythical Sumerian culture, with pieces missing, conjectural translation elements represented by various symbols. Of course, it incorporates a certain kind of purposeful incompleteness (since the whole idea is that there are missing pieces), so perhaps that goes to your point, albeit in a twisted fashion.

Another complicator -- visual poetry like that of George Herbert -- while his poems rely on sonic effects they are obviously meant primarily to be read, and use their written form to well-known effect.
posted by BT at 2:10 PM on March 9, 2002

Despite the slightly priggish tone of the above (how come that never shows up in preview?), I really like this post, braggadochio.
posted by BT at 2:15 PM on March 9, 2002

pracowity: damned if I know what this 'competitive poetry' slam business is about. It seems to me like a really bad label for improvisatory hip-hop.
posted by DaShiv at 9:09 PM on March 9, 2002

> but her deadpan delivery adds anything to the poem.

That of course should have been "nothing to the poem." You knew that, but I'm compulsive.

> damned if I know what this 'competitive poetry' slam
> business is about.

Go here and check the FAQ.

"A poetry slam is an event in which poets perform their work and are judged by members of the audience. Typically, the host or another organizer select the judges, who are instructed to give numerical scores (on a zero to 10 or one to 10 scale) based on the poet's content and performance."

Nasty, eh? Like poetry-reading Olympics. People sit around a cafe and take turns getting up to perform against one another for points. There are reigning champs and so on. Bareknuckle

> A poem that isn't meant to be read aloud is a poem
> that's incomplete.

Nope. I hear sounds in my head. (I hear other voices, too, but that's another...) I don't need the soundtrack. I hear a voice reading the poem to me when I read silently. Also, as BT has already pointed out, many poems depend upon line breaks and other effects that only work properly on the page.

I do agree that a great poem usually (always?) sounds good and often works best when you read it aloud to yourself, mouthing the words, breathing them to life. I love to memorize poetry and recite it to myself. But listening to the poet mouth his poems at a reading is more a way to get close to celebrity than to the poems, and listening to someone reading poems who is not the author of the poems is like watching an MTV video of a song rather than closing your eyes and listening to the song: you're enjoying something else, the performer, not the poem.

A related problem, now that we're there, is music. A composer writes something that he can hear without plucking a string or licking a reed. (The well-worn example is Beethoven.) I don't think anyone composes only for paper, however. But the best way to enjoy and understand music is not to listen to someone else play, but to play it yourself. If you cannot read music or play by ear, you have to settle for someone else interpreting the musical runes for you. Which is a shame, like having to be read to because you are illiterate.

An unrelated problem, but I'll say it to anyone who has bothered to read this far, is that I only half believe half of what I say half the time.

And finally, a cat picture: I heard a single D played last night on our piano while all were in bed, then the scurry of cat feet. Either the cat reached up and played a single midnight note before running off in glee, or a ghost played the note (why a D? will she spell her name out on consecutive nights?) and scared the cat away.
posted by pracowity at 1:16 AM on March 10, 2002

> Anybody else note the rather surprising biographical
> details about Dr. King's life in the dialogue poetry site?

"Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Balkh (Afghanistan) in 1207 to a family of learned Persian theologians. Escaping the Mongol invasion and destruction...

Now that's a poem.
posted by pracowity at 1:26 AM on March 10, 2002

BT, Thanks for the links to the works by Armand Schwerner and to George Herbert. When I wrote A poem that isn't meant to be read aloud is a poem that's incomplete, I was thinking of John Milton, who wrote a number of poems while blind. The visual aspect of a poem isn't always part of its creation.

There are a good number of poetic devices that rely upon sounds. A poem doesn't need to include them, but the spoken and written word are tied together, and these are things that often distinquish poetry from prose:

alliteration - the same beginning sounds
assonance - the same vowel sounds
consonance - the same consonant sounds
Rhythm and Meter (link includes a favorite, called Fleas)
heteronyms - words spelled the same, but with different meanings when pronounced differently.
Euphony - Harmonious sounds, smoothly enunciated and pleasing to the ear.
Cacophony - Harsh sounds calculated to clash discordantly
Onomatopoeia - words that use sound to suggest their meanings

Procowity, I don't think that we are too much disagreement when it comes to the reading of a poem as performance art, or competition. But I will confess that there are a pair of street poets in Wilmington - twin brothers - who I enjoy listening to as they shout their words out for all to hear. They would tell you that they are preaching the words of the lord, or rapping, and might take offense at the label poet, but both have a gift for using the spoken word.

As to BT's question about No "complete" poetry for the deaf, I take it then?; the deaf are going to miss out on many aspects of poems that rely upon some of the devices I listed above, and others that I didn't include. I often read poems that my understanding of is incomplete because the author refers to something I have no experience with; an allusion to something I haven't read or done.
posted by bragadocchio at 3:27 AM on March 10, 2002

pracowity: What a difference an omission makes. What I meant was that I'd be damned if I knew what poetry slams were really about. Egos, I would surmise. After all, everyone knows that pandering to crowds for points is what truly makes one a real poet.

Don't get me wrong, I love that they're expanding the audience of poetry, and that the audience is encouraged to respond to the poems. It's the competition side of it that's silly, on so many levels.

And about poetry readings, listening to a poet read his own works at a reading has often been a source of insight for me. Sometime's it'll seem like Just Another Person reading the poems. But sometimes it'll be interesting to see which way he swings on a heteronym, or maybe I'll find strangely euphonic when he reads it, or maybe I should've allowed for the possibility that speaker of the poem was just being sardonic...

The lucky thing about being a student in the San Francisco / Berkeley area is that I've been to three readings in the past week.

bragadocchio: Many poets, such as e. e. cummings, have written poems that are awfully hard to read aloud. The question of whether poems are primarily written or verbal is a bit like the question of whether electrons are primarily particles or waves. When I find myself trying too hard to figure out whether it's a poem's formal construction or its sounds that makes it tick, I often remind myself of Eliot's line, "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood," and leave it at that.
posted by DaShiv at 5:31 AM on March 10, 2002

the late Armand Schwerner,

Schwerner is dead? I didn't know that. A great representative of one of the more "intellectual" tendencies in poetry. (See also George Quasha.)

I agree with pracowity's distaste for the poetry slam as an institution, but disagree (maybe) with his position on reading it aloud. Poetry contains multitudes, but the approach I have always been closest to--Williams, Zukofsky, Olson--emphasizes the primacy of the voice and breath as the... physical embodiment of the poem, the poem's music. Without the voice, what does the line mean? And without the line, a poem can be what modern poetry's critics always charge it with, prose chopped up into short pieces, Bucky Fuller style. To downplay the voice in poetry is to give license to the myriad bad poets who really work that way, or who mis-hear, say, "The Red Wheelbarrow" as that. (On the other hand, to over-emphasize the voice leads to the pseudo-bardic claptrap of Allen Ginsberg and poetry slams, and that ain't good either.)

But if the complaint is about valuing the experience of hearing someone else read over reading it oneself, well, OK. But I would maintain that you haven't lived until you've heard Pound croak out Canto I.
posted by rodii at 11:44 AM on March 10, 2002

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