A war rages among poets, the voice blitzing the pen

The Argument

'Performance poetry' -- rap, slams and more -- reaches back into the ancient origins of the art.

Books

May 19, 2002|By Clarinda Harriss | By Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Murdering English-language poets has gone out of style since the days of Christopher Marlowe (in barroom brawl) and Fulke Greville (by enraged employee). Good thing. Poetry is divided into ferociously hostile enemy camps.

American poetry wars circa 2002 resemble actual combat in several important ways:

* It's hard for noncombatants to understand the battle lines.

* Most of the warring camps' passionately held premises are false.

* People get hurt.

Particularly visible among the poetry-war camps: "Performed poetry" vs. "read poetry"; "formal" vs. free-form poetry; African-American / urban poetry vs. European-American / suburban poetry. These pairs of combatants cover "how presented," "how put together" and "by whom," but the way they line up defies graphing.

You'd think "read poetry," poetry designed to live primarily on the page, would follow technical rules about form (rhyme, line-length, etc.), and resemble European ancestors. You'd think "performed poetry" would be free-form -- speech that could easily veer into rant -- and be an urban thing, welcoming mainly to black poets, its prime venue the so-called slam. To hold onto those assumptions, you have to ignore the history of poetry and stop up your ears.

Let's think about poetry designed only to be read silently from a page.

This constitutes about 0.001 percent of existing poems: the ones that "look like" what they're about. Even e. e. cummings' supposedly "visual" grasshopper poem buzzes and snaps while it lurches across the page; you can read it aloud quite effectively if you perform it with one hip-hopping hand.

Pattie McCarthy, poet and editor of Beautiful Swimmers Press, says this of the admittedly difficult poems in her most recent collection, bk of (h)ours: "If I didn't care about how the poems sound -- out loud -- I'd be failing my main obligation as a poet."

Speaking of sound effects, listen to the hum of mm's and nn's in one small poem by Maryland resident Linda Pastan, "Autumn"(slashes are line ends, double slashes are stanza ends): I want to mention / Summer ending / Without meaning the death / Of somebody loved ... / / Look at the pumpkins, / It's finally autumn! / And the child didn't think / Of the death of her mother / / Which is due before her own / But tasted the sound / Of the words on her clumsy tongue: / Pumpkin, autumn.

My hypothetical adversary muscles in. "Get a grip on the term 'performance poetry.' It's poetry written specifically, no, only, to be performed. 'Performed' means 'acted' -- with a full range of vocal and physical intonation."

Oh, I reply. You mean like Shakespeare.

If the lobbed grenade of the Bard's name hasn't sent my adversary running, I cite two famed Baltimore-based poets, Josephine Jacobsen (former poet laureate of the U.S.) and Daniel Mark Epstein (New Poems: The Traveler's Calendar, just out). Epstein's career as an internationally acclaimed poet skyrocketed when his play Jenny and the Phoenix hit the stage. The play is in iambic pentameter, like Shakespeare's.

"But that was then," counters my adversary. "You have to be young, ready to commit Slamicide [the wonderful name of a Monday night series at XandO across from Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus (GalAengus@aol.com)]. You have to be urban. You have hear hip-hop playing in your head. Frankly, you pretty much have to be black."

Nah. I recite from memory a few rowdy stanzas of "Pondicherry Blues" (for Voice and Snare Drum). In print, Jacobsen indicates where the performer snaps her fingers. Hear her, in her 90s, looking like a quintessential Roland Park matron, perform this poem. Plus signs show the snaps.

Mrs. Pondicherry was + fat and mean, / She had four + pug + dogs and a limousine / Black + as West Virginia coal; / And she troubled herself about her soul, / Yes, she surely was concerned + about her soul.

Five stanzas follow Mrs. Pondicherry's pinchpenny, self-seeking, soul-for-hire story till this end: But Father O'Hare he was + serving the poor; / he never reached the house, and he never crossed the door / till she closed her eyes and + she stopped her breath / in the lonesome + slum + of death / that dark + trashy + street of + death.

I was able to type the Jacobsen "blues" without the book, snaps and all. The more "fixed" the poetic form, the easier it is to memorize and perform.

That's why the history of English-language poetry is a history of orature (oral literature). For its first 500 years, poetry in English was made by and for people who couldn't read. Beowulf, the earliest surviving English poem, used a form as "fixed" as Peter-Piper-Picked-a-Peck-of-Pickled-Peppers. Each line held four heavy accents where listeners thumped their pints of brew on wooden tables in the medieval mess hall while the entertainer howled its bloodthirsty lines, aided by tongue-twisting, memory-enhancing alliteration.

Beowulf is book-length. Rap songs are long.

In rap, rhymes abound, of course, in the middle of lines as well as at the ends of lines.

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