Friday, January 05, 2007

The Sounds of Poetry

I am not a big fan of the institution of Poet Laureate. It's usually a political rather than artistic appointment, and although it provides a bully pulpit for poetry, many poets never employ it; they do not serve the post, or their country, but rather themselves. They are content to write the occasional inaugural poem, or historical/political opus, but otherwise they often keep a low profile. That strikes me as a waste, as the position, and its support via the Library of Congress, is one of the very few governmental posts in the US bureaucracy that has any real ability to advance the arts.

One of the few exceptions, one of the most effective of recent Poets Laureate, in terms of using the bully pulpit to cheerlead and support the growth of poetry in the US, and as far as I know the only Poet Laureate to serve three consecutive terms, is Robert Pinsky. I respect enormously what Pinsky did as Poet Laureate, which I view as a significant achievement for putting poetry back into the public's eye.

During his tenure as Poet Laureate, Pinsky did more to cheerlead and cajole poetry into public awareness than many other Poets Laureate combined. I think he was the most effective holder of the position I've seen in decades. I'm not the most dedicated fan of Pinsky's published poems, but his joy is infectious, and his enthusiasm for poetry of whatever content or style or genre or medium of presentation is contagious. (And, I would argue, his poems do have more literary merit than many other recent Poets Laureate, such as Billy Collins, Joseph Brodsky, Rita Dove, Ted Kooser, or Donald Hall.) Pinsky's embracing of new media, new technologies, and new ways of connecting poetry to people, is excellent: the Poetry Kiosks, the PBS readings, all that stuff he promoted that got average folks reading their favorite poems out loud. Pinsky reminded us of the joys of sharing a love for poetry.

One thing I like about Pinsky is his particular emphasis on poetry as a performed, read-aloud medium. As a spoken medium, not just a written one. Of course, great poems succeed both on the page and when read aloud; that's almost a definition of good poetry, and perhaps a good litmus test to tell good from bad.

Far too many poets nowadays only exercise their typographic skills, and have no performative skills whatsoever. I know several good poets who literally kill their words whenever they read them aloud: flat, monotone, shoe-gazing. They read too quickly, or too slowly, or they just read as though they were reading a shopping list, and make their poems sound like prose. The absurdist irony of poets having poor reading skills is that poets are those very individuals who are supposed to have the greatest love for and appreciation of words.

Setting aside for the moment whole Slam/Nuyorican1 performance-poetry phenomenon, one can say that, with few exceptions, poets don't perform out loud very well. (Some of the few exceptions: Olga Broumas is a great poetry performer, by the way, and Hayden Carruth's recorded readings are sublime.)

Pinsky's book The Sounds of Poetry: a Brief Guide is written in part to address this, I believe. He spends more time on the sound of poetry (hence the title) than on the mechanics of literary craft. This is not a craft-oriented how-to manual, but more of an appreciation of the art. He spends more time on exploring why certain poems work as well as they do, than he does on any in-depth mechanical analysis of form, meter, rhyme—although he does address all of those. He talks more about the line than about pure syntax. I find all this refreshing.

So, it's a shorter book, not a weighty formal theoretical tome. In my opinion, that makes it very readable. It's engaging rather than sleep-inducing. I think it's something working poets definitely ought to read. It's not all for novices. In fact, some of the negative reviews the book originally received were because it was not just another how-to manual for poetic novices and beginners, when the reviewers were looking more for something typically mechanistic and purely craft-oriented. There are plenty of that ilk out there already. It's nice to have something a little bit more philosophical on hand, as an additional viewpoint.

1 In contradiction to the examples above, lots of gifted performance-poets, who can thrill or rivet an audience: their words, when put onto the page, lie there vacuous and bland, or pretentious and silly. The poetry Slam sub-culture, which has become completely dominated by hip-hop and rap poetry, suffers from this. A quick glance through any anthology from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe ably demonstrates this; most of the poets who came to prominence there as readers can't sustain interest as purely published, on-the-page poets. I do give the Nuyorican and Slam movements credit for getting lots of troubled urban teens off the streets and into the arts, for giving them a voice, and a microphone. One could wish, however, that more of the poetry that came out of Nuyorican and Slam readings sounded more diverse than it does, and that more of it wasn't imitative in style and tone of existing rap recording artists. It may give folks a voice, but it seems to give them all the same voice, which is a serious limitation.

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