June 25th, 2010 16:15 EST
Poetry Readings as Archaeological Adventures
Long ago but not too far away when I enjoyed air tea with Dolores, my first love, I memorized long poems. The usual culprits. Longfellow`s The Song of Hiawatha, " Kipling`s The Ballad of East and West, " The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, " or Fitzgerald`s charmingly reckless version, which I found slightly titillating.
But as I matured, if I dare use such a presumptuous word, and started to write poetry, I found that memorizing it had a soporific effect on my brain. I tend to singsong the lines as if my recital were a feat rather than an exploration. I find the singsong delivery of poetry distasteful, enervating, even if Algernon Charles Swinburne is being recited.
This prejudice has served me well, although some of my audiences may not agree. I sometimes read with poets whose practiced theatricality annoys me. They seem to be measuring the audience for effect. And sometimes the attention-getting delivery conceals inferior work.
My own choice, which comes, I think, from returning to my poetry again and again and revising it, is to read each word and each line as if there is something to be found in it, something missed before, a possible inflection that may shed new light. I suppose I approach my own work like a marine archaeologist, looking for artifacts in the debris fields.
Sometimes an audience gets this and appreciates it. Sometimes I suspect an audience puts it down to my age and forgetfulness. What I hope to achieve is a kind of sharing of the experience, and not infrequently I`ve interrupted myself to say, Oh, this is what was going on in my mind at the moment.
I think the best poetry bears up well to this kind of frequent visit, this unremitting revisiting. It`s not unlike surveying a garden in spring and seeing what has survived the winter, what can be pruned and revived "and what must be uprooted. But it may well come across to some as bumbling and amateurish. I hope, instead, it comes across as respectful.
I often find audiences get exactly what I feared they wouldn`t get, and I have then to ask myself if it`s because of my reading or because the poem itself gets the meaning across. It should be the latter. It had better be if the poem is to have legs.
But there is another and to me more important reason why I don`t memorize poems for recital. The experience of seeing words and forms on a page is different from fishing them out of one`s hippocampus. Gutenberg, after all, wasn`t a neurological nanobot. I have no doubt that when poetry was put in the hands of calligraphers it had a very different impact on readers than when it was churned out by the Gutenberg press. The way we see something affects the way we hear it.
What I am much less sure about is how poetry might have evolved had it not been for movable type. How, for example, would the caesura look on a page illuminated by a calligrapher? Would prosody have evolved in a way remotely similar to what we know today? I doubt it. My guess is that the press has had a profound influence on poetry, and I think poems now lighting up in cyberspace will have an equally revolutionary impact. I don`t know if hypertext will become a protocol in poetics, but the mere knowledge that a word has the inherent capability of being a hyperlink is bound to influence poetry, because now we must presume that words are tangible as well as metaphorical gateways.
I recognize in saying this that by the same token reciting a poem from memory activates other parts of the brain and opens up new possibilities for reader and audience. Ultimately it`s a matter of choice, of style. I like to see the poem in front of me. The deployment of the words reminds me of something I had in mind when I wrote the poem. Having grown up among artists, I am resolutely visual.
To me, for example, the march from left to right of Roman script seems like a Macedonian phalanx compared, say, to the right-to-left flow of Maghrebi Arabic script. Kufic script in Arabic appears to me as squads of lancers. Gothic script strikes me as commanding, perhaps even menacing, although I confess that this may be so because of my association of it with the Nazi era.
Often when reading a poem I see something I don`t like and must shake off the impulse to correct and refine it right then and there.
My hunch is that too much emoting when reading a memorized poem deprives you of a wealth of information in the audience`s micro-expressions. You`re so busy getting yourself and your poem over that you fail to study the audience, particularly those few faces whom you seem destined to encounter. Those few faces might just change your entire poem, but you have to give a damn about them and not how you`re looking. Those are faces you scan an audience for. They are like tripping in the jungle and stumbling upon an emerald.
It helps to be beautiful or handsome, but only with certain people. I never worry much about that because it came to me early in life that there is vast difference between beauty and attractiveness, and attractiveness is as mysterious as pheromones. Besides, I don`t think our ideas of beauty are as subtle as they ought to be. They`ve been processed to a fare-thee-well by Madison Avenue.
Whoa, I`m getting off message here. But that`s my point, in a way. It seems to me poets who perform " from memory tend to stay on message, whereas I`m still trying to figure out what the message is. I don`t ever want to read the same poem the same way twice. That would mean I`m not learning anything from it and neither are my listeners. They might applaud me, but I`d rather have them get " the poem.
A good poem keeps on revealing new facets and doesn`t like being herded by its reader. The reader`s job is to let the genie out of the bottle so that he/she can wreak havoc among the audience. You can`t do that by following a well-rehearsed formula. Well, I can`t.
I remember a teacher in one of my schools warning my fellow students that I was about recite a poem. And recite it I did, which is like telling the poem not to say anything new or inconvenient. Shut up, my mind is made up. So the poem dutifully becomes an artifact.
I believe a good poem is an algorithm, and God only knows to what it may be applied with stunning effect.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com
Far From Algiers Video Trailer #1 from Brent Robison on Vimeo.