Friday, May 20, 2011

"All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." -Oscar Wilde

Perhaps it was the longstanding SouthCoast tradition of miscomprehending the role of the artist in society, but I have always understood writing as a solitary craft.
I was never the type to join writers' groups, so I was fortunate to high school on an autarchic little island of Jesuit erudition. In Fall River, the intellectual backwater where the academy was situated, creative writing is considered a profligate luxury and associated with the lavender silk pillow set.
Elsewhere -- let's say, oh, Newport -- one's pals were perpetually dipping their quills into the community-fostered inkpot and scratching invisible keepsakes into some packsack or other; it's hard to not wring the sighs and cries and forge them into some attempt at beautiful music. I was afforded plenty of opportunities to share my poetry publicly. Which panned out quite well, with a few local literary publications printing a few pieces at no cost to me.
And once, I was actually compensated for it.
In free copies of the magazine.
(The magazine, incidentally, was printed for free by some sucker and offered at artsy establishments without charge.)
But that was last century, when the idea of reading poetry aloud before an audience was an exercise for greybeards to practice before bluehairs.
I practiced my own penchant for performance on professional and amateur proscenia. I could see no reason to muddy the literary waters by conjoining poetry and drama (*coff*Shakespeare*coff), but seeing as how entropy was firmly mucking up every other definition that I had ever learned, "performance art" became the obscenely ubiquitous medium of expression for poetry.
Or what passed, in some quarters, for it.
You may remember the shorthand sitcom stereotype of "poetry reading." Black turtlenecked clove cigarette smokers snapping their fingers at self-impressed berks who think that "melancholy" coordinates metrically with "broken doll" if you frown hard enough. You know the bit.But at poetry slams, similar clichés assaulted.
Poetry slams brought movement and instruments and percussion and recordings into the coffeehouse. Young people (and, dude, twenty-five years ago, I was one) were treated to Schoolhouse Rock versions of Horatian odes -- well, without the Augustan principles and with more pauses and swear words.
At some point in the evolution of the form, merely reading a poem, without mixed media presentations and throbbing basslines, was considered boring. Stuffy. And, um, not really poetry at all.
Since I was playing the museum and library circuit -- where bookish unrhymed iambs of maritime irony played better -- I would not have minded even the evolution of reading events into hip-hop franchises.
If it weren't for some humorless, witless, and charmless participants.
"Irony," as it turns out, requires lots of those sneaky meaning-filled "words," and usually not ones that served in coarser contexts as substitutes for "genitalia."
There was the woman who screamed obscenities while ripping up family photographs. There was the couple who shouted inanities and then full-bodyslammed each other. There were the ones who gave heft to bland words like "stupid" by inserting painfully uncomfortable silences before, during, and after. The ones who would fall to the stage and say, "CRASH!" The ones who spoke in a soft whisper except for the times when they hollered.
I found some of them to be fierce, earnest, mean-spirited, frightened, impolite, unpolished, tattooed, angry, blathering prats who were unaware that the novelty had worn out decades before. I was not familiar with their vocabulary and my more-often technical observations were generally ignored because concerns like metaphor and comprehensibility were oldhat distractions. Because I was neither relentlessly self-absorbed nor sickeningly fawning.
I had a college "advisor" who found fly-fishing not only diverting but uncommon enough to appear hip, and extolled the virtues of freshwater angling while tying lures during our advisory sessions. Turns out that he did this so that when his wife called, he could say that he was tying nymphs in his office. Which he found exceedingly clever. He spent long hours attempting to parse the poetry of Bob Dylan's popular songs, claiming that Dylan was the only songwriter whose work stood up to classical literary analysis. While twisting waxed thread around the shank of a hook, he twisted himself in excogitating convolutions in order to prove Zimmerman's lyrical acumen. I handed him the lyricsheet from Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom.
That's around the time when a new faculty advisor showed up with a bottle of Dewar's and a syllabus filled with Eugene O'Neill.
A poem is not a song. When the words of a song can be effective without performance -- when appreciated first-hand from the page and not blared from a stage -- that is where poetry lives for me. I have been moved by some fine and new poets. Locally, I know of many. They are hard to find, unless you know where to pick up their chapbooks, which says less about the poets' public relations skills than it does about the public's relationship with poets.
But this intrigues me:

NORTH DARTMOUTH, Massachusetts (May 4, 2011) – Baker Books and WhalingCity Review are thrilled to welcome Janet E. Aalfs to the bookstore’s Bean & Leaf Café for a poetry reading on Saturday, May 21st at 7:00PM. Aalfs, who was the poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts(2003-2005), weaves poetry and martial arts dance in performing,teaching, and social justice activism locally, nationally and internationally.
"Intrigues me," much more than this:
Because I would rather extrapolate on the meanings of words and their order. Rather than concentrate on the personality or the performer.