Monday, February 25, 2013

Just what is poetry, anyway?

So after someone telling me that Homer and Tennyson didn't write poetry I'm wondering what it is I do then?

Not that I'm Homer and Tennyson-class--but you get the idea. Poetry has become something either indefinable or unimportant or both.

Perhaps that's why this blog (and the magazine it came from) is called "Strong Verse" not "Strong Poetry." I'm interested in the craft of writing verse, not slapping a silly "it's automatically art" label on some words.

More to it though, what's the delivery system of poetry?

Back when poetry was first created in those good old prehistorical times folks didn't read nor write--so they had to listen to a poet chant. Maybe they did it around a fire, maybe in what would become an amphitheater.

At any rate is was the voice that mattered. Folks could only see large gestures--so there could and likely would have been some motion--but an emphasis on that was what drove us to drama (the first split from poetry?).

Then along came the historical world. Folks could read--well, some of them--but performance was still king (at least if your audience was more than the king who could read anyway). But poets, who now could rely on the exobrain of paper for memorization, could devote more time to versecraft. Hence the rigor of national poetic forms.

Then came printing and the rise of literacy.

Here you have the ability of verse to reach the person interested in poetry before the poet. This creates a few problems, notably the difficulty of transmitting inflection and performance. The Beatles could create "concerts" with their Pepper-and-on albums but that's because they could record. Printed words don't carry the same weight.

Which speaking of, the rise of printing mirrored the rise of musical notation which could carry the same weight as performance. Unfortunately no such easy guide was given to the written word. Readers had to rely on a knowledge of rhyme and meter to eke out how a poem should be read (unless they were lucky enough to catch the poet--and how often did that happen? Legit question, btw).

Also now the music of poetry had to compete with the standardized (and far more performed) music of music. And drama and and and.

Then came sound recording and broadcast capabilities. While wax recordings of Tennyson exist, what is clear in them is that there's no notion of performance. He intones and warbles "Haalf a leeeague, haalf a leeague" in a rhythm familiar to many who attend contemporary poetry readings. Even the reportedly gorgeous and vivacious Edna St. Vincent Millay reads her poetry as if she's at a funeral.

Why do we think people want to listen to this?

Who has effectively recorded poetry (without music)? Garrison Keillor?

Is it really that hard or is it simply unlearned?

At any rate it hardly matters because TV (and more importantly internet distribution of video).

But where are the poets of TV? Of film?

Why did we stop in the 19th century and leave well enough alone? Did all of the folks who would have been our greatest poets just become song- and screenwriters?

Aural storytelling is powerful. Visual storytelling is powerful. Why not have some animated or even live-action recreations of poems?

We must rethink our delivery methods. Print is wonderful and powerful but we can't leave performance poetry to the performance poets and visual poetry to the avant garde.

What do you want to see as a poem?


stu said...


Interesting thoughts. I like your argument that changes in distribution (e.g., from the recitation of the bard to the far greater reach of the printed word) changed poetry.

It seems to me that you're hinting at the argument that electronic distribution might bring back a more performance-oriented poetry. Books are fine, but ebook could, in principle if not yet always in fact, read to you in the poet's voice. So, why not have them do it?

I expect that the talkie revolution in poetry will have much the same effect as the talkie revolution in the movies. Not everyone has the voice to make the cut.

stu said...
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