Answering Carol: an open letter from the Margin

Sometimes my wife, Carol, will call my attention to a newspaper paragraph about a famous poet who has died in another country. She’ll read me a sentence about people weeping in the tavernas and reciting the poet’s work from memory. And she’ll ask me why this never happens in the United States.

For most of the twentieth century, the term ”American Poetry” came increasingly to refer to a branch of literature that Dana Gioia describes as “typographic,” to the exclusion of the auditory. The last twenty years, on the other hand, have seen a resurgence of the oral from several directions. Gioia cites cowboy poetry, slam poetry, rap, and hip-hop as disparate elements in a grass-roots movement subsumed under the more general term “spoken word.”

Genuinely new artistic developments…tend to move dialectically from the margins of established culture rather than smoothly from the central consensus.

-Dana Gioia, “Disappearing Ink,”
The Hudson Review, Spring 2003

The first time anyone ever interviewed me about poetry, I said ”American Poetry is like some ritzy academic town, like maybe Hanover, New Hampshire—the kind of town where if you work there, you can’t afford to live there. The spoken word movement is like a carnival that sets up shop on the outskirts of that town. The poetry slam is like the freak show in that carnival, where people pay to stare at mutants. But evolution happens by mutation.” Talking about slams in the Hudson Review article, Gioia says, “The poems are typically performed in competition and judged by the audience or a representative jury—an arrangement that both Sophocles and Pindar would find quite natural…”

In 2004, The Worcester Review invited me to write an article about the difference between writing for the page and writing for a poetry slam. I had occasion to a pre-publication version of that article to Donald Hall, and he wrote back to disagree with virtually every assertion I had made. That was the beginning of a delightful and fascinating correspondence.

Last year, while reading a column by Don in American Poetry Review, I came to this passage:

I have a slammer friend with whom I write long letters of combat. He writes me an argument which he thinks will be a winner. He bets me that I cannot find a poem printed in Poetry or The New Yorker which, read aloud at a slam, will win first prize. I could not agree with him more. To me, the notion of the argument reveals its poverty. What the hell do I care, considering a poem’s virtue, about the votes of a bunch of cheerful self-chosen enthusiasts in a bar?

And therein lies the answer to Carol’s question. There is no weeping in American taverns when a poet dies because, for nearly a century, the American Poetry Establishment has not cared about the opinion of the “people in the taverns.” (I leave it for scholars to discuss exactly when the divorce decree became final; as a jumping-off place for their discussion, however, I might suggest the moment, after publication of “The Waste Land,” when William Carlos Williams wrote in his journal, “The idiot! He has given poetry back to the Academy.”)

American poems are not recited in taverns because, for the better part of a century, the poems of the American Poetry Establishment (”APE”) have not been written to be recited. How many of their own poems have they bothered to memorize? And why should they if a poem’s only meaningful existence is on the page?

In the face of such dogma, I find it interesting that Donald Hall’s new book includes a CD, and that in his first utterance as Laureate-elect he talked about getting more poetry on the radio. In the paragraph in the APR column, before he mentions his “slammer friend,” Don writes,

I’ve been to the Nuyorican and other castles of slam, and I have laughed and applauded—but I was never responding to poems. I heard no line breaks; I heard only thrust and energy. I heard no vowel and consonant play, only drive and good timing and jokes or outrage. In print the work remains inert. Nothing in the marks on the page, those jagged lines on the right, carries the vigor performance supplies.

I think Don’s judgment offers very serious grounds for appeal. First, even in the “castles of slam,” competition is first come, first served. As at any open mike, you might hear something brilliant, but on any given night some of the poets might be trying out stuff they wrote that same morning. (Patricia Smith once beat me with poems she had written at the bar during the open mike.)

You can’t expect the Super Bowl of Poetry at a slam or open mike; what you’ll witness is usually more like an exhibition game in the sweltering heat of the dog days of August—half the players will be cut before the season starts. There doesn’t exist anyone forum where all poets bring their best work at the same time. Judging spoken word as a whole on the basis of one or two visits to these events is like pronouncing the death of page poetry on the basis of a collection of first drafts from random workshops.

What I most object to in Don’s indictment is one word in the clause, “I was never responding to poems.” Clearly, that judgment rests on the perception that what is apprehended in performance is something other than a “poem,” that a “poem” is a typographic entity that exists on the page and nowhere else, and that in being read or recited for an audience, it is transmuted into an entity of some different kind (once you add vermouth to the gin, it isn’t gin any more).

In that perception, it seems to me that Donald Hall has spoken not for the whole American Poetry Community, but only for the typographic segment of it, the APE, whose poems are never recited in the taverns because they were never made to be recited anywhere at all. I would exhort our new Poet Laureate to speak for the whole of American poetry, which includes a burgeoning spoken word community, and not just for the APE.

And when, in any event, did the APE accord itself the right to dismiss all other choices as something other than poetry? When did standup poets lose the right to prepare a text as script for a performance, and call that performance “poetry”? And lastly, what new name shall we give to the scrap heap to which millennia of oral tradition have been relegated?

APE, this essay is not a declaration of war on you. This is a petition asking you to consider expanding the limits of your definition of poetry to include work that values thrust and energy, good timing, jokes, outrage, and vigor—even over line breaks and vowel and consonant play. Dear old APE, do you really believe that works that reflect those choices are disqualified from the category “poetry”? Do you believe that future generations will endorse their disqualification?

We just want to join the party. We’re willing to sit below the salt for a while, but think we should have a place at the table.

My vision of the future of American poetry is already coming to pass. Spoken word poets, dear APE, are coming to the colleges where you teach, routinely being paid by your Student Affairs Committees fifteen to twenty-five hundred dollars for a one-hour show, and departing the same night for the next college on their tour. (I tell you this because you may not be aware of it; usually, nobody from the English faculty comes to these shows.)

Meanwhile, graduates of your MFA programs are submitting their poems to little magazines published by other graduates of your MFA programs—and if those magazines ever do publish those poems, they might be read by fifteen or twenty people tops, while I’m writing a new poem in the morning and sometimes reading it the same night to, well, to more people than that.

Closet poets are entering MFA programs and being graduated without learning anything about performance. Some of them will go back into the closet for the rest of their lives, with only college loan payments to show for their investment.

I believe that the spoken word movement is going to bring about a new Golden Age of American poetry. It will happen with you or without you. It will be better for everyone if it happens with your active assistance.

Up to this point, APE, everything I’ve said argues the case that you need us—and you do. You need our vigor, and you would not say no to a share of our audience. But we need you, too. A recent eight-page tabloid from my alma mater carried an article on page seven about “independent” poetry projects which are, in fact, assiduously supervised. One student is quoted as saying, “My professors’ comments are so interesting. Something so small as a line break changes a whole poem. They go for every word. My poems are short but their marks are endless.”

As much as you need our vigor, we need your rigor. Can’t we find common ground?

And finally: Hey, Carol—American poems are being recited in the taverns, but not mournfully. We, the outliers of American poetry, the marginalized migrant workers in the fields of spoken word, are performing them, with “thrust and energy, good timing, jokes, outrage, and vigor!” Joyfully!!