Notes from the Poetry Underground
According to the legend, at that time Patricia was writing her poems out longhand on lined sheets; that when she read them to audiences and in competition, she was generally working from first drafts written in paragraph form—without line breaks.
I can personally testify that this particular legend is not far-fetched. Once, back around 1996, I qualified to go against Patricia head-to-head, best four out of seven, for the “Champion of Champions” title at what was then our home base, the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Cambridge. She beat me 4-0 with one tie. To add to the indignity, her first four poems had been written that night, while sitting at the bar and emceeing the open mike. She wrote on yellow foolscap, and at one point I got a look over her shoulder; she wrote without line breaks.
The legend goes on to relate that although Patricia presumed no particular literary merit in her writing, she had a friend who recognized her unique talent. And that this friend borrowed her drafts, typed them up and submitted them to The Paris Review, which quickly accepted and published some or all of them.
I called Patricia to find out whether the legend was true. She told me there was a lot of truth in it, but that it was really a composite of two events. She tells the story this way:
“I never expected I was going to make it among respectable poets. I was invited to do a reading with Reginald Gibbons, who was then the editor of Triquarterly. I was very intimidated to share the stage with anyone so distinguished. After I performed, I sat back down and he leaned over to me and asked, ‘Can I see what it looks like?’ I handed him the longhand text, and he eventually told me he wanted to publish it.
“The text I gave him was written as prose. Before it was published, I received a proof—with line breaks. I thought a few of the lines broke a little strangely, and I changed those few and sent back the proof and it was published that way. That particular publication resulted in a grant from the Illinois Cultural Council. The Paris Review came a little later. Also through no fault of my own.”
In 2003 as part of Writers’ Day, an event sponsored by the New Hampshire Writers Project, I attended a workshop run by Robert Cording, a brilliant Academic poet who teaches at Holy Cross. I sat in the back of the room, took notes and kept my mouth shut. I was tremendously impressed by Cording’s knowledge of poetry, and by his obvious work ethic.
Every example he gave demonstrated precisely what he was getting at. Cording made the case that every line of a poem should in some way announce itself as poetry—something “poetic” (my term, not his) in the diction or the syntax, something other than straight-ahead in the word-order. One or two of his examples were from Frost, and they demonstrated his point perfectly. I thought, “Of course poetry should be different from prose; but every single line? That’s an awful lot to ask.”
When I got serious about writing poetry, I also got serious about reading it; why should I expect anyone to read my poetry if I didn’t read anyone else’s? So I subscribed to Poetry Magazine. I recommend this to anyone else who’s getting serious. Each issue of Poetry Magazine contains 40-50 pages of contemporary poetry and another maybe 25-30 pages of reviews criticism, and letters. Most of what I’ve learned about Academic poetry has come from those back pages.
For my purposes, the best article I’ve ever read was by Henry Taylor (who won a Pulitzer for poetry in the eighties, and, even more parenthetically, competed as an individual at the 1997 National Poetry Slam, finishing about 75th out of about 150 competitors). Taylor’s article was called “Easy Listening” (April-May, 1993), and it began with a discussion of line breaks in contemporary poetry.
I read it avidly, because I was desperately trying to figure out what the guiding principles of line breaks in free verse might be, so that editors might not be able to tell at a glance what an amateur I was. But the poets I was reading seemed to be all over the map. Taylor pretty much verified my conclusion that although there were a great many possible rationales for breaking lines, there were no rules, and one particular observation in Taylor’s article has stayed with me. He said—and I don’t think it was said disparagingly—”…the main reason for lines is to make the piece narrower on the page, so that one can tell from across the room, as it were, that this is a poem.”
There are dozens of possible valid reasons for breaking lines in free verse; there are also instances where none of the valid reasons apply. In those instances, we break our lines anyway, “…so that one can tell from across the room, as it were, that this is a poem.”
Back to Writers’ Day. The grand finale was an interview with Donald Hall. Hall is a particular hero of mine, and the interview was very illuminating. At one point he was asked how, as a New England poet, he deals with the shadow of Robert Frost. He answered that because of Frost, he no longer writes in blank verse, because Frost was so good at it, and was so alone at the top, that anytime Hall gets anything in blank verse absolutely right, he can’t help sounding like Frost. And there comes a point in one’s career when it is no longer appropriate to echo one’s influences.
At the time, the anthology The Spoken Word Revolution was nearing release. I knew that the editor, Mark Eleveld, had had considerable correspondence with Hall, hoping to get his participation in the project, and that in the end, Hall had demurred. I raised my hand and asked him why. He gave a long and thoughtful answer.
In the course of that answer, Hall said that his objection had to do with the book’s emphasis on Slam poetry. He said that he had been exposed to some Slam poetry in performance, and that he had enjoyed it very much. He liked the humor, the strength of the content, the power of the performance. But when Eleveld sent him Slam poems and he read them on paper, the humor and the content were there, but he didn’t see craft, he didn’t see poetry.
I count as friends a lot of poets who slam. I often buy their chapbooks; often they give them to me. Sometimes I open up one of these chapbooks to read a poem that I have admired in performance (or been beaten by in a Slam). Not always, but too frequently to ignore, I come away from my reading disappointed, with the sense that “I had thought there was more to this than there actually was.”
To some extent, that reaction is a tribute to the poets’ skill as performers. Maybe part of the Slam poet’s job is to create the illusion that there’s more there than there really is.
(And maybe part of the Academic poet’s job is to create the illusion that there’s less there than there really is.)
Sometimes when I finish writing a first draft of a new poem I’ll read it to my wife Carol and she’ll say, “You should send that one to The New Yorker.” I think, “Wow, she thinks it’s that good. Maybe I will. But I’ll have to do a lot more work on it before I do.”
When I think that, I am acknowledging that what’s good enough for the audience at an open mike (cf. “Easy Listening”) is often not good enough for the page.
Because the requirements are different.
Maybe eighty percent of the poems I’ve read in Poetry Magazine—although admittedly fine in their own way—would, if I read them at an open mike, sink without a ripple. Nobody would come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed them. Nobody would want to talk to me about them, except for the occasional, “What the fuck was that about?” If I performed them in a Poetry Slam, I’d get knocked out in the first round.
Because the requirements are different.
When I got serious about poetry, I would pore over Poets Market, looking for places to submit my stuff. A lot of little magazines stipulate that they don’t want “chopped prose.” I try not to write chopped prose, but sometimes there’s just one perfect way to say something and it’s too long to fit into a single line and you have to break it somewhere—in order that it may look, “from across the room, as it were,” like poetry. In that situation, it’s difficult to defend the charge that one has not been chopping prose.
I think the key difference between Slam poems and Academic poems, the difference that jumps out at the editors of the little magazines when we try to get our stuff published, the difference that Robert Cording would see immediately, and that Donald Hall described as lack of craft: that difference has to do with their sensitivity to what they see as “chopped prose” and our attitude toward line breaks.
I’m not saying that Slam poets don’t produce great lines; sometimes we do. But as Slam poets, we don’t feel any obligation to think about the line as a unit of anything. Our units are sentences; our stanzas are paragraphs; our audience hears the poetry rather than sees it. The story of Patricia Smith and Triquarterly is the archetype of the casual relationship between Slam poets and line breaks.
And this discussion would not be completely honest if I did not include this opinion: even among the greatest of the page poets, Robert Cording’s assertion that every single line should be freestanding poetry is more a worthy aspiration than an accomplished fact. Open any book of contemporary free verse and it won’t take you 60 seconds to find a counterexample. I have in front of me a wonderful Robert Cording poem called “Self-Portrait,” published in the December, 1996 issue of Poetry Magazine. Even in this excellent poem, I can find at least a couple of lines that are unarguably “chopped prose.”1
I am not suggesting that “chopped prose” is a good thing. But it’s something poets can and do get away with if the rest of the poem is strong enough to carry it. Anyone who denies that is indulging in a polite fiction.
I submitted a draft of this article to Robert Cording, lest I might misrepresent his ideas, and his response included the following description of the difference between free verse and “chopped prose.” I think it’s the best thing I have ever read on the subject. I commend it to my friends in Slam.
“Yes, a poet like myself ‘attempts’ to make each line do something interesting in its own right. And yes, the goal in nonmetrical free verse is rarely achieved 100% of the time. I would take issue only with the way you approach the idea of ‘chopped up prose.’ What I mean by ‘chopped up prose’ are three things: first the poet is actually writing prose, usually not very good prose. There is no concern with compression, with sentence structure, with getting rid of the locutions of prose sentences. Second, and this is where you get me most right, there is no concern with syntax. That is the sentence in good free verse, while sounding entirely natural, is highly arranged in terms of syntax so that the words placed on each line are doing ‘something more.’ The poet who writes lineated prose has never arranged their sentence to make the words of the sentence fall into the best line units. Third, the good poet is thinking both in terms of line and sentence simultaneously. What makes poetry different than prose is that you read prose by sentences and paragraphs; you read verse by line and sentence. The goal, then, for me is to do the best work possible to underscore the ‘meaning’ of the poem (my intentions) by manipulating both line and sentence simultaneously.”
I think that the immediate future of American poetry lies in radio, and a return to poetry’s oral roots. And I think we’re onto something with the three-minute time limit that is observed in most Slams. I think the three-minute unit has a very special relationship with the human attention span.
A hundred years from now, if cultural historians talk about Slam poets at all, I think they might credit us with perfecting the three-minute poem as a genre. And if we have any lasting impact, if they say anything else about us, it might very well be that Slam poets freed American poetry from the tyranny of the line.
My friend, Spokane poet Dennis Held, another pre-reader of this article, suggests that that’s like saying “painters have freed American painting from the tyranny of paint!” But it feels a lot less iconoclastic when we consider that I’m saying it in the wake of the emergence of the prose poem as a respected form. It might be more accurate to say that Slam poets have opened a second front against line breaks.
“Because the requirements are different.”
Going back over what I’ve written, I am confronted by the obvious need to elucidate what I mean by the “requirements.”
When I was in college, long before I dared think of myself as a poet, then-Assistant Professor Jim Epperson told me that amateur writers write only for themselves; a professional writer always writes with an audience in mind.
I remember an ad I saw years ago, in a glossy magazine, maybe The New Yorker. A man in a smoking jacket is sitting in an armchair in a room that is unmistakably the library of a mansion that he unmistakably owns. He is reading from a large, old volume. There is probably a snifter of brandy on the end-table next to him. I think he is smoking a cigar. The title of the ad was, “An Evening With Shakespeare.” If I remember right, Shakespeare was the brand of cigar—although it might have been the brandy, and I can’t entirely rule out the smoking jacket.
When I read most Academic poetry, that man seems to me to epitomize the audience that the poet had in mind. A dream audience, singular and totally, undividedly attentive. Maybe a little bit buzzed, what with the vodka and the nicotine, but still perfectly capable of following the clues to the deep emotion at the heart of the poem.
Now consider the job of the Slam poet. The Slam poet has to appeal to three to five judges. Who are these judges? They are persuadable people, quite possibly at their first poetry reading, probably at their first Poetry Slam (else they would have known better than to get talked into judging). They will have been instructed to score the poem, Olympic style, from zero to ten, using one decimal place. They will have been told that zero is for a poem that should never have been written and that to get a ten, a poem should elicit spontaneous orgasm throughout the room. All other poems should be scored “somewhere in between.”
So what a Slam poet is going for is a gut reaction from a bunch of suckers of no probable expertise.
Most important, a Slam poem is a communal experience. There is an audience involved. A great Slam poem can set off a sort of electrical reaction that, while generally short of orgasm, is absolutely physical. Maybe it makes you laugh, maybe cry, or maybe it makes you want to march out and carry a picket-sign and get arrested in some noble cause. Whatever the particular note that’s being struck, that note is being amplified and mediated by everybody else in the room.
Maybe the judges wouldn’t know a great poem if it changed their lives on the spot; still, there’s always the hope that the audience will let them know that something wonderful just happened.
Judging is the Achilles’ heel of the Slam. Of the several hundred Slams I’ve attended, I don’t think there’s been one when the judges haven’t rendered at least one unjust decision. When Henry Taylor finished in the middle of the pack in 1997, I suspect the judges might have failed to appreciate some pretty good poetry. And that night Patricia beat me with poems written at the bar—that was unconscionable!
On the other hand, a strong case could be made that all poetry criticism should be written in magic marker.
Some find the whole approach to judging inappropriate, arguing that it encourages a “dumbing-down” of the poetry presented. That accusation is not without merit. Yet no less a literary icon than Samuel Johnson wrote, “By the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices… must be finally decided all claim to poetic honors.” That quotation should be inscribed above the portal of every Slam venue.
Obviously, we’re a long way from “An Evening with Shakespeare.”
What do you do differently if you’re writing for a Slam as opposed to “An Evening with Shakespeare?”
In the first place, I think it’s a mistake to write “for a Slam.” Some of the best minds in Slam disagree with me there. Taylor Mali, who has coached four teams to national championships, believes there is a very precise science to writing a Slam poem. But what I write are open mike poems. If I see that a poem does really well in a variety of open mikes, I think about memorizing it and editing it for the Slam.
That said, the technical differences between a Slam poem and an open mike poem are generally minimal compared to the differences between a Slam poem and a page poem.
Let’s begin with generalities: Academic poets seem to believe that poetry should be difficult, written to be read, the language should be exalted, the meaning concealed, and that it’s the reader’s responsibility to follow the poet.
Slam poets, on the other hand, seem to think that poetry should be accessible, written to be heard, in discursive language, its meaning—at least at one level—unmistakable, and that it’s the poet’s responsibility to hold the listener.
These and other considerations show up in a number of different specific areas.
A. First line
Academic poetry puts a premium on first lines. I have no evidence, but I’ve always suspected that when some editors open an envelope of submitted poems, they stop reading if they don’t get hooked in the first line, because they think their readers read that way.
In a Slam, on the other hand, you have a captive audience. They’re probably not going anywhere. Moreover, those two guys in the corner may not be listening yet. You don’t want to squander a great line before you have everyone’s attention.
B. The Size of the Poem
The vast majority of American poems being published in magazines today fit on a single page. The reader knows at a glance how much of his life he is committing. The Slam judge is pretty sure that he or she is committing about three minutes, which is generally 2-3 times what it takes for a first reading of a short lyric. But time is not as big an issue for Slam judges, because they aren’t going anywhere.
More to the point, as I said earlier, I believe that the three-minute time period has a unique and very satisfying relationship to the human attention span. Most songs played on the radio are about three minutes long. In boxing, the rounds are three minutes, and that’s probably where the rule came from.
Speaking very subjectively, I have found that three minutes is almost exactly the right amount of time for taking an audience on a little trip with you, giving them a glimpse of something they never considered before—or better yet, something they knew, but didn’t know they knew—and dropping them off edified, satisfied, and nodding their heads in agreement—saying Yes to something—right where you picked them up. When it works, it’s magic. I can’t quite accomplish all of that in two and a half minutes, and by three and a half minutes some of them have started to wonder if this is the trip they signed on for.
C. Language vs. Content
In a poem called “Saying Saying Away,” published in the June, 1996 issue of Poetry Magazine, A.R. Ammons says, “…what a poem says may be its least and most/ misleading ploy:…”
I’ve never been able to figure out whether that poem was written tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t think it was. I think it’s probably a fair statement of the Academic value system.
To an Academic, the primary consideration is how something is said. For a Slam poet, on the other hand, content is primary. Academic poetry is language-driven, Slam poetry is content-driven.
I hasten to qualify all this by acknowledging that many Academic poems deal with earth-shaking issues, and many Slam poems achieve breath-taking effects with language. Yet I maintain that the primary concern of the Academic poet is language, whereas the primary concern of the Slam poet is content.
D. Humor (and sexiness)
In one of his books, Donald Hall observes that poets who read their work to audiences too much tend to fall into the trap of too often going for “the easy laugh.” I wrote in the margin, “Don, there are no easy laughs.” Every time we go for a laugh, we’re sticking our neck out. Few things can be more humiliating than saying something that is obviously intended to get a laugh, and being greeted with stony silence.
On the other hand, laughter is almost the only way an audience has of letting the poet know, in the course of the poem, that they’re with you. Letting the poet know, and letting each other know.
Yet I have come to agree with Hall about the “too often” part; last year too many of my poems were written just to get a good laugh at the Cantab.
For a few men and a lot of women, sexiness can work almost as well as humor. I, alas, am not one of those men. And even for women, it’s a gamble. I once saw a woman play heavily to her sexuality and—surprisingly—lose badly. I don’t think I have never seen a poet who felt more humiliated.
Academic poets tend to avoid sentiment like the plague (here my friend Dennis Held observes, “Some even avoid cliché like the plague.”). Sentimentality is one of the worst charges one can level against an Academic poet. Slam poets don’t worry about it. I think we’re right not to. I think you get maximum emotional impact if you can skate at full speed right on the edge of sentiment without falling in.
And there’s a difference between sentimentality and honest emotion, although sometimes the dividing line is barely discernible. The difference is best seen in this: when sentimentality makes your eyes tear up, you hate yourself for it, and the poem, and probably the poet who wrote it. When honest emotion does that to you, you respect the poem for it, and you might even like yourself a little bit better.
F. The Look of the Poem
To the Slam poet, the way the poem looks on the page is—literally—of academic interest only.
To the Academic poet, the look is the functional equivalent of performance. White space, line breaks, punctuation, font—even spelling and capitalization: all tools that a Slam poet can merely hint at, but to the page poet, they are paramount.
That makes it sound as if page poets hold all the cards. They don’t; Slam poets have one major advantage: Slam poets can deliver the sound of the poem, and emphasize it with gestures, facial expressions, sound effects (but not musical instruments); page poets do everything they can to point you in the right direction, but in the end they have to cross their fingers and hope for the best.
I once attended a reading by Charles Simic and Mark Doty. During the question period they were asked how it made them feel to hear someone else read one of their poems. They both said they hated it, because the other person never gets it right. I maintain that when they said that, they were acknowledging 1) that—at least in the mind of the poet—there is a Right Way to read a particular page poem, and 2) that it may not be possible to put enough cues on the page to allow a reader to arrive at that Right Way
G. Verbal Pyrotechnics
Both sides agree that in poetry, there is a premium on language that is in some way special. Inversions, startling juxtapositions, elevated diction, jarring diction, sonorous and startling phrases—all good. I call these techniques “verbal pyrotechnics.” Academic poets would probably assert, “The more, the better.” Slam poets might argue that you don’t want to talk faster than your audience can listen—okay, I know there are some who work on the principle that if they say enough dumb things fast enough, they’ll sound smart; but I’m talking about good Slam poets.
I know that ambiguity is highly prized among Academic poets. I’ve never understood why. I don’t say that contentiously; I’m admitting ignorance. But I do know that ambiguity rarely works in Slam poems.
Thomas Lux has written, “There are some bad slam poets, hundreds of decent slam poets, and a handful of brilliant ones. There are some bad ‘page’ poets, hundreds of decent ones, and a handful of brilliant ones. For every self-indulgent and narcissistic slam or performance poet, there is a slim book of self-indulgent and narcissistic poems on a shelf somewhere.”
That is a statement you can take to the bank (when you’re depositing your clichés). With one added caveat from me: the worst of the page poets don’t have the latitude to be nearly as bad as the worst of the open mikers.
This is because the page-poet world has gatekeepers, called editors. Whereas all the Slam world has is emcees, and they often function more as enablers.
When Academic poets give readings, they often spend almost as much time introducing their poems as they spend in the actual reading of them. This is a very sound practice for a number of reasons, but mainly because it would be extremely difficult for an audience to shift gears instantaneously between two intense poems that are very different as to the particular quality of their intensity. The poet’s patter is like the glass of water that clears the palate between the courses of a sumptuous meal. (If that makes it sounds as though all Academic readings are like sumptuous meals, well, even in prose I permit myself a little occasional hyperbole.)
If introductory notes are necessary for understanding the context of a poem, Slam poets generally try to write that information into the first few stanzas. This is partly due to the pressure of competition: if you have 189 seconds to generate spontaneous orgasm throughout the room, the window for foreplay isn’t open very long.
Slam poets generally memorize their poems. It’s not a rule, and even on the stage at the finals of the National Poetry Slam, I have seen poets read from the page. But memorizing your poem and looking your audience in the eye seem to be worth a point or two, and Slams are often decided by a tenth of a point.
I think that the reason judges reward memorization goes beyond the fact that the poet is free to do more physically with the presentation. I think the major reason is that by memorizing your poem, you honor it, you are telling the audience, “I have made an investment in this poem; I believe in this poem,” and audiences respond to that commitment. At any open mike, look around the room when, after a stream of readers, someone approaches the mike empty-handed and goes right into their piece. People sit up; the whole quality of their attention changes.
Can Slam poetry matter? Has this whole discussion been much ado about nothing?
I have two answers, the Li-Young Lee answer and the Megan answer.
My wife Carol and I once had a long, delightful conversation with Li-Young Lee. As the evening wound down, he asked me the D question: doesn’t Slam poetry lead to a dumbing down?
Sadly, sometimes it does. Just as, I might have said, page poetry sometimes leads to bloodlessness and preciosity.
But the larger answer is that the poetry world is the ultimate Big Tent, with plenty of room for everything that’s out there now, everything that ever has been out there, and God knows how many things that aren’t out there yet, but will be tomorrow.
And what I really wish I had said to Li-Young Lee is, “What if you could write a poem that would get a 29.7 at the National Poetry Slam, and then be published in Poetry Magazine? Would that be one kickass poem, or what?”
I’ll conclude with a family anecdote. My daughter Megan was a classics major at Harvard. If anything I have ever done has impressed her, she hasn’t let on, so it was with some trepidation that I awaited her comments after the first time she came to see me slam. She said, “This reminds me of what it must have been like in Greece, when Homer would recite the Iliad in the tavernas, and people would cheer for their favorite characters and boo the villains.”
All else aside, if a poetry slam can take a classics major back to Homer in the tavernas, I submit that that alone constitutes a prima facie case for its cultural value.
There it is. As you knew I would, I have played the Homer card. Academics will cry Foul, but poetry began as an oral art and that is still its natural home. On the strength of the Homer card, one might be tempted to argue that while the printed page has been a priceless boon in disseminating poetry, still, for all the fascinating and intricate conventions that have developed around it, the bells and whistles and secret handshakes of the illuminati—one might be tempted to argue that at the end of the day, the printed page is to poetry as a photograph of a sunset is to the sunset itself—an invaluable method of recording for posterity a single aspect of a miracle of creation; but no more than a single aspect.
That would be a gross overstatement of our case. Better just to say we’ve been away a long time, we’re sincerely grateful to those who kept the game going in our absence, and now we’re back to reclaim our rightful place at the table.