poet in the spoken tradition of poetry
because there is also poetry in the written tradition
SOULSPEAK: SOME THOUGHTS ON POETRY AS SPOKEN LANGUAGE
I don't think it is any secret it is the task of each generation of poets to recast its songs of love and death in a language unique to that generation, but we are failing miserably at that task because our poetry culture is continuing to value a poetry that is increasingly out of touch with the sea of language we are all being forced to swim in: a language that wants to be spoken and heard, rather than written and read.
If you're not convinced there is a difference between a spoken and a written poetry I suggest you try this as an exercise: go up to someone you love or hate and tell them so in very specific language. Then go home and write them to the same effect. The differences in tone and structure are not superficial I can assure you. This is equally true for poems that are spoken in nature rather than written. The whole structure of the poem changes, it begins to have those qualities that have defined oral poetry since time immemorial: it is more direct in structure and tone, more narrative, less elaborate in imagery, more immediately engaging. In short, there is more of a sense of "being there". And that is precisely the kind of poetry our times are calling for.
And yet, despite this rather simple explanation of the difference between a spoken and a written poetry, I have engendered so many misconceptions that I should make it clear I am not calling for a return to the oral traditions of the past, which is impossible, because those traditions belong to those specific times and their specific language structures, but to something new.
I think part of the confusion comes from the fact that poets have come to mistake the totem for the god, ie, they have come to the point of automatically equating poetry with literature; ***but anyone who has had any acquaintance with oral or musical poetry knows intuitively that poetry has only something to do with literature but almost everything to do with words and music and movement,*** and furthermore, that anyone with even the smallest sense of history and the true nature of poetry knows equally well that an oral/musical/rythmically-moved to poetry existed for thousands and thousands of years prior to the emergence of writing.
But it was the revolution of the printing press that essentially changed poetry from a written to a spoken art and caused poetry to drop its historical alliance with music and movement and to begin its long wrestling match with an artistic prose, a match that resulted in poetry's written form rapidly dominating its oral/musical form until recently. And although we can't go back to the exact oral poetry of the past, we can allow ourselves to be pulled back to something similar to it. ****I would prefer to call this new oral poetry "spoken" poetry, in order to distinguish it from the oral traditions that preceded the printing press****. After all, our speaking has been altered forever it's influence, but more especially in our times by the influences of the telephone and radio and the movies, and yes, let us not forget it, television.
One of the most telling remarks I've encountered in this regard was that of some European friends who told me recently that they found the English of Americans much easier to understand than that of the British because the American vocabulary was so narrow. Some years ago, I might have been appalled by that observation, but it didn't shock me at all: it is a natural outcome of the process of a language that is returning itself to a a spoken form. After all we Americans have 67 channels and the British 3 or 4, so why shouldn't we be ahead of them in returning to a spoken language.
What I am saying is that poets should open their sensibilities to what is happening around them. Besides living in a culture that is rapidly becoming an oral one, we are also living in a profoundly musical culture, one dominated by popular song. And if some of us tend to put our nose up in the air at the mention of pop music maybe we should remind ourselves that if that form of poetry was good enough for Shakespeare, who wrote over 400 songs, then maybe we should pay some attention to it as well. Maybe not just include music in our readings as background, but as an essential element, and maybe even write a few lyrics for the blues and jazz and rock that define our times and lift the art even higher, or maybe go back to the earlier chanting/musical traditions of oral poetry and take a chance or two winging it like Homer did, but with the musical instruments and forms of our time.
With regard to composing a spoken poetry, I should say that I have grown from writing them as they come to me to speaking them out loud at the earliest possible time, while they are still forming, and I can unequivocally say that I can write and think through a lie as a poem forms, but I can't speak out loud through a lie: the tongue simply stops unless the conscious mind forces it to speak the lie, which it does very, very haltingly. I have come to favor this method of composition, although I don't know if it is unique to me. What results are poems that were truly spoken, with writing being utilized more as a recording device, much as a composer writes down the notes of a musical composition he has just finished humming. Because if you allow the poems to come to you not as if you are writing them, but as if you are speaking to your imaginary listener, AND YOU ACTUALLY SPEAK THEM, the resultant poetry will be different. I might also add the odd fact that oral composition makes the poem instantly memorable in the mind of the poet, a potent reminder of one reason why the oral bards of the past could so easily recall their work.
Surely a truly spoken poetry is a way for poetry to reclaim a good part of it's lost audience, because readings, or more correctly, speakings, can truly help save poetry from its current isolation if used correctly. In fact, I think speakings are the only way this is going to happen, but they will only fulfill their true objective when poets stop trying to use them to speak a written poetry that usually doesn't speak well. I'd drive a couple of hundred miles to hear some poets speak their poetry, but not very many. Go to a local poetry reading and count the three or four nodding heads if you doubt I'm correct. And the problem can't be ducked by saying we are living in a nation of Philistines. There may be barbarians at the gates, but there are also hundreds if not thousands of people in every town of any size who are attending opera and ballet and theatre and art exhibits on a regular basis. So why aren't they crossing the street to hear us? That's the real question poets should be honestly asking themselves.
On the other hand, we at the Sarasota Poetry Theatre pack a local cafe four times a month with a poetry audience of ALL ages whose size and attentiveness have astounded visiting poets. The trick is a simple one: we perform only those poems from the past and present that fall into what I have defined as a spoken poetry. And when it makes sense, we collaborate with dancers, musicians, singers, translators and actors to emphasize and reintroduce the rhythmic and musical components of poetry it has been divorced from for so long. This goes for both classic and contemporary poetry. The result is somewhat tribal: very full-blooded, highly electric, and right on the money. I'd say it's quite close to what goes on in the poet at the moment of conception but it's been given public face: a face that is updated but quite close, I believe, to that which it had prior to the printing press. To put it more simply, we are doing what poets did for thousands of years before Gutenberg helped turn poetry in on itself.
ã Justin Spring
Note added at 2 hrs 24 mins (2005-10-27 19:41:46 GMT)
Frankly, I think my anwer is the most elegant...sorry
Note added at 2 hrs 30 mins (2005-10-27 19:47:33 GMT)
best: poetry in the spoken tradition
Works in field
Native speaker of: English, Portuguese
PRO pts in category: 80