Degrees of Difficulty

The first time I attended the Boston Poetry Slam, it was still at the Bookcellar, it hadn’t even moved to the Cantab Lounge yet. I brought a poem that night that I was really proud of. It was in rhyme and meter, and it was really clever, killer punchline. I still do it occasionally, and when I do it today, it works well.

But that night it didn’t work. I lost the audience halfway through. When I got to my final punchline, only about four people were still with me. One of them was Patricia Smith, and she gave me a good shout out. But for most of the audience, I was a waste of time.

A young guy followed me. He did a long, rambling monologue about hitchhiking across the country. It was funny in places, it was touching, it was good; and it could just as easily have been a short essay as a poem. The audience loved it. Hell, for that matter, I loved it. But I was hurt. I thought, “Why do they like what he did so much more than what I did? What I did was so much more difficult.”

The answer that immediately flashed before my eyes, like those news bulletins that stream above Times Square, was, “So what? Audiences do not award any points for Degree of Difficulty.” What we do is not a diving competition. It is a competition for the hearts and minds of a live audience, and the key to their hearts and minds is their attention. In order to hold their attention, we have to make some concessions.

Does this mean “dumbing down?” At its worst, yes. But I always answer that charge this way: what if you could write a poem that would get a 29.7 (let’s say) at Nationals, and then be published in Best American Poetry of the year? Would that be a kickass poem, or what? Would that not be a poem worth writing? If anybody answers that question “No,” that person is beyond talking to. And I maintain that that’s the poem we should always be hoping to write. Granted, not all material lends itself to that aspiration. But a Mack Dennis haiku is a step in the right direction.

Why does the poem I did that night at the Bookcellar work for me these days when it didn’t work then? Because today, I have a reputation. Audiences trust that if they stay with me, I’ll reward them. So they’ll go a lot further with me before they tune me out. I think audiences today often tune out rhyme and meter. I think it’s because there aren’t many poets in our generation who handle rhyme and meter well. Billy Collins says he doesn’t allow first-year poetry students to write in rhyme and meter because he feels they make it too easy to think you’ve written a poem, when you really haven’t said anything worth saying. We see a lot of that with beginners.

But I’ve also seen audiences tune out people who handled rhyme and meter very well, and I suspect there’s a very ungenerous reason for that. I sometimes feel myself thinking, “This guy probably thinks we should all write in rhyme and meter, that what I write really isn’t poetry at all.” And thinking that, I confess that I am hoping this guy fails with the audience. Yes, I know, it is unworthy, and when I see it happening I often go out of my way to tell the guy how much I admired what he accomplished in the poem. But I don’t think I’m the only one in the audience who had that ungenerous feeling, and I suspect that it contributes to an anti
form bias among slammers and open-mikers, It’s a bias that is usually justified; but I make an effort to keep my ears open for the exceptions, the rare contemporaries who handle the forms well.

In case it got lost in the shuffle, let me repeat that one sentence I promised you back at the beginning: Audiences do not award any points for Degree of Difficulty.