Wag the Poet

About a week ago, Cristi and I went downtown to a posh little cafe called Tazza to hear some poets on the faculty here at Brown read. It was a fundraiser for hurricane Katrina, or more aptly for those effected by the horrendous 'cane.

Now, I've tried to go to several of these readings. There was one several weeks ago, which due to my own ineptness at reading signs, I showed up mostly too late for. Just in time to hear this guy read some political poem about the situation in Iraq (*yawn*). The poem wasn't bad, necessarily, it's just not my style to indulge politics with poetry. The two, to me, have always seemed at odds. Politics is the doggerel of the masses. This is, of course, perhaps overstating it too much, but the discourse of politics--especially these days, and on these college campuses where "liberal-minded" students are flopping around proclaiming their hatred of Bush every time someone even thinks to say the word "government"--is self perpetuating. The very discussion of politics, supreme court nominees, taxes, war etc. just plays into the system of corruption that no one wants but everyone claims those who disagree with them are for. Poetry, and more generally all art, should be above these base arguments. Leave it for the pundits. Chris Matthews can write the Ballad of John Kerry. The real problems are more deeply rooted than the national political tit-for-tat. A piece of art that wears its political agenda on its sleeve can only become part of that discourse, a ball punted around by those trapped up in the dead end rhetoric of the national politic. The concern of art is the greater philosophical and metaphysical concerns of our time, the "politics" of it (if you want to call it that) will handle themselves.

This distracts me from the point I had wished to make: Poetry readings are very boring. Sitting in the back of the room listening to the poets recite there work, I was struck by how unmoving the whole event was. This frightened me. After all, studying poetry for four years in college has basically made it my milieu (for better or worse). I should be enjoying these types of things. I should be aspiring to read in front of audiences at trendy cafes, lecture halls and bus stops. But after a rash of attending these readings, I can't see why anyone would want to come hear me.

Wag the poet. The poems are wagging the poets. The poet stands before an audience, sidles up to the microphone, opens her book of poems and begins to recite. Hello! Recitation is not reading. Not even close. I like poems an awful lot. Most people do, I've found, despite the fact that most people spend .01% of their time on it. So why get up there, and just... PRESENT... the poem(s). Poetry reading is, at its root, an act of storytelling. This was of course sustained by the nature of the poems being read by wandering bards and minstrels. They were narrative poems. They were stories. Now, though, with most poetry experiencing the postmodern hangover, the poems do not tell stories themselves. This isn't bad. Far from it. But why not use the reading as an opportunity to deliver those anecdotes (stories) which contextualize the more abstract poetry of our times, and sell the idea that they are worth listening to (and not as daunting as they appear to be).

There are the slam poets. I hate slam poetry. So I'm not going to discuss it. Watch Def Poetry Jam and tell me what you think. That's a discussion I'd like to have.

... A poetry reading should be a gathering of friends, a time to unwind and listen. It should not be a time to sit in a room feigning rapt attention before an edifice of words that is for the most part delivered unemphatically and with supreme arrogance. I'd like to conclude with a quotation which I think sums up the "attitude" I witness at these readings:
"Peter Ackroyd's biography of Eliot claims that the first reviews [of The Waste Land] in England were "variously baffled and respectful"-- partly because of the notes and references, which left some critics mystified enough that they couldn't come out and say they didn't like the poem for fear their ignorance of his learned and sophisticated methods would be discovered."
Everyone, let's stop pretending we understand and start asking to be helped along. We'll all be the better for it.


Quantumduck said...

"A piece of art that wears its political agenda on its sleeve can only become part of that discourse, a ball punted around by those trapped up in the dead end rhetoric of the national politic. The concern of art is the greater philosophical and metaphysical concerns of our time, the "politics" of it (if you want to call it that) will handle themselves."

What about the Inferno? It was pretty political, and is nevertheless viewed as a pretty solid piece of poetry.

And how is politics somehow below the scope of the mighty and noble poet? It affects the lives of almost everyone. It may not be noble or clean, but it's important, and while individual political issues may not be worthy of composing verse about and american political punditry may be pretty horrific, I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater just because Bill O'Reilly is an ass.

What's wrong with slam poetry?

Scott said...

I'm not that well versed in Dante's Inferno, so I can't really speak to that. But, as far as my understanding goes, it's not political in the same sense I mean political. If you would consider Naked Lunch or Howl to be in the scope of what I deem "political poetry" then we're working from different definitions.

It's hard to believe that any art could avoid being strictly unpolitical. However, a poem that may be seen as "political" may not have had political intents. The poetry I mostly speak of is that of the whole "Poets Against the War" Sam Hamill BS. I'm sure you've encountered some poems punning on George Bush, Rumsfeld et al. The problem I see with political art of this ilk is that it can only preach to the converted. Take a look at Amiri Baraka's "SOMEBODY BLEW UP AMERICA" (it's available on his website, which escapes me now). If you don't agree with his message from the get go, then what else is the poem but inflammatory?

Political Poetry can be, handled well. African American poets have, I believe, demonstrated this masterfully. The poetries of Langston Hughes, Sterling A. Brown, Robert Hayden have been important contributions to the genre. (If you're looking for a laugh, check out Brown's ballad sequence about his fictional character slim).

So, I suppose I was slighly broad in my rant about political poetry, but you might be too if you had to sit through this guy's poem. *yawn*

"I'm so and so, and I'm an American Girl from Wichita... [tortures iraqi prisoner poetically] ... then you'll be softened up and ready to confess" .... it was something like that, although this is a crappy paraphrase.

Mighty and noble poets? Your term not mine, but I'll agree with teh implication of your sarcasm that poets are kind of dripy. Don't you think? Hopefully this will change. Can we ressurect Dylan Thomas... Please?


Slam Poetry. Never cared for it, been struggling for awhile to articulate my objections, or to find someone who can tell me what all the fuss is about.

Scott said...

ps: are you still rocking the parliaments?

Quantumduck said...

off and on. i'm rocking the marb 27s at the moment. But i'm still a p-funk kinda guy

Joshua said...

Poetry should not be separate from the concerns of society, which can potentially include politics.

That said, I would say the problem is not "politics" in poetry, but "ridiculous and overwhelming partisanship" in poetry.

Guy Davenport once said the greatness of a poet is in the uniqueness of his or her persective. There's nothing special about an exclamation of "hey, I'm a Democrat" or "hey, I'm a Republican!" etc.

Scott said...

Well put Josh, you said that pretty well. There's a David Mamet quotation about drama (and art in general, if i may extrapolate) which said (and I paraphrase: "Drama[art] should be about more than simple conflicts like white people should be nicer to black people etc." I wish I could find it, but my recent attempts to have failed.

As an aside, would you at all be interested in writing for the blog? We've been looking for more people to write, I could set you up with an account etc. The subject of the blog is basically, writing and language. Cristi brings in the whole Linguistics, Semiotics, Semantics field which I think is great thing for poetry to be discussed agains

Anonymous said...

Finally...someone who understands that an excessive use of politics is poetry is ABUSIVE to the art form! Quite frankly I am sick to death of going to poetry readings and "slams" that are thinly disguised political protests or rallies.

It's time people took back poetry as art and not continue allow people to use it as an excuse to shove their ideologies down the throats and ears of the unsuspecting listeners!

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