Every year on a Sunday in mid January, I drive to the Stern Center at the College of Charleston to support my school’s representative at the Regional Poetry Outloud recitation contest, and every year I drive home disgruntled because the judges – no matter who they are (politicians, poets, professors) – confuse recitation with acting, valuing gesture more than intonation, cadence, timbre.
One of this year’s winners literally beat her fist against her bosom as she screeched
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.
She delivered the last line of the poem, on the other hand, with pleading melancholy, in a ridiculous diminuendo, which snuffed out the concluding iamb, turning it into a trochee, her voice falling ever more silent:
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The irony that the poet is essentially asking God to rape him did not seem to register at all.
Although one of the three selected to go on to the next round was superb, the other two’s gestures distracted from the aural subtleties of the verse, their voices sometimes eliding syllables to register (literally) high-pitched emotion while their arms fluttered.
Of course, these complaints may strike the skeptic as sour grapes; however, from the official POL website, here’s poet Kwame Dawes instructing judges on physical appearance:
I think the key thing to remember, that we expect students to remember, is the poem comes first. Everything else that you do with your body, with your voice, with your arms, whatever you do, has to be in service of the poem. If your body takes over and becomes the lead in this dialogue, then the poem disappears. The one thing about Poetry Outloud is that the poem comes first. What we want the person to do is to think about the poem when they (sic) leave, and therefore it takes incredible economy of body expression to convey what is happening with the poem. (my bold type)
Here’s another advisor on the link instructing judges on “dramatic appropriateness.”
The student brings – and I put drama in quotes – but brings the drama that is appropriate to the content of the poem. And I also think that it means that the student does not substitute what I would consider artificial emotion for the poem’s appropriateness. If the poem is dealing with difficult subject matter, the student should maintain his or her poise and not let the content of the poem to give him or her license to become an actor or theater performer. (again my bold)
Does it not strike the judges that the so-called professional poets who read at the event stand essentially still and let their voices do the work? I’ve seen masters like Archibald MacLeish, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop (among many lesser lights ) read in person, and none of them mimed the meanings of the poems as they recited them.
As I was listening to my student’s beautiful rendition of “Dover Beach,” her clear, sad voice articulating every syllable, pausing at each caesura – “[b]egin, and cease, and then again begin” – her own cadence “tremulous” and “slow” – I thought to myself, “If only the judges could hear recordings of these recitations.”
If only they checked out the linked video above before they whipped out their scoring sheets.
Last night the Ambler Hall Band did a benefit concert for the IPPL Gibbon Sanctuary. Here’s my youngest brother Fleming doing one of his kick-ass originals. Feel free to check out earlier posts (if you dare).
God: Son, have you read Job 38, 1-41? Genesis Chapters 9-6? Genesis 19?
Justin: [lying]: Yeah, sure.
God: I promise not to get any angrier than I did back then.
Justin: Why did You let so much shit go down on me this week?
God: What do u mean?
Justin, Well, I got popped for egging my neighbor’s house.
Justin: Which led to my bro, Lil Za, getting busted for coke.
Justin: Then I got pulled over for drag racing doing 60 in a 35 zone. Like, I had my dad and a couple of Escalades blocking traffic so nobody would get hurt. Seems real unfair.
Justin: And then for the mug shot, the pigs wouldn’t let me put on no make-up or put on my shades, and a couple of zits show up for all the world to see.
Justin: And on top of it all off, when I got to the hotel, there were only about 30 chicks camped out there. Nothing’s gone right this week! Why did You do that?
God: Let me see. Well, first, I let Satan tempt you into egging the house to let the world know just what a pussy you are so tweens will still identify with you and buy your records.
Justin (humbled): OH!
God: I had Lil Za, like an idiot, leave the blow out in plain sight so you could bask in big boy trouble without your actually getting into serious legal trouble. So you’re still appealing to tweens and the older crowd.
Justin: (17 watt light bulb illuminating above his head): Oh.
God: Hey, look. I could have had u drag-racing out in Salinas like I did your previous incarnation James Dean, but I had u in the streets of Miami where it’s virtually impossible accelerate fast enough to receive fatal injuries. So now you’re copping pre-humous press, unlike JD, whose posthumous academy award nomination didn’t do him personally a whole lotta good. Look, compare his Porsche with your Lamborghini.
Justin (quizzical): Okay.
God: Hey, sorry about the zit, but u ain’t the only peep I’m taking care of. Some kid’s parents were praying that he make a free throw when your arrest was going down.
Justin (softly): I see, God.
God: Oh, and those chicks. I kept the numbers down so you could sleep off your hangover without a muffled roar going down outside your window.
Justin: I’m Sorry, God.
God: Don’t be sorry, just learn to Trust Me…. in All things , the Good & the bad.
Justin: I will trust You.
God: And don’t doubt that My plan for your day is Always Better than your plan.
Justin: I won’t God. And let me just tell you God, Thank You for Everything this week.
God: You’re welcome, child. It was just another day being your God, and I Love looking after My Wealthy American Children . . .
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us! – Robert Burns “To a Louse”
In January and February of 2000, David Foster Wallace, hailed by AO Scott as the best mind of his generation, rode along with John McCain and Company on the Straight Talk Express as he campaigned in South Carolina for the 2000 Republican nomination. In his essay “Up Simba,” DFW offers his analysis of the campaign and occasional descriptions of our countryside, architecture, and denizens. Here’s a description of a trip down I-26 from Spartanburg to Charleston:
Coming back up the Bullshit 1’s starboard side, no laptops are in play and no windowshades pulled, and the cleanest set of windows is just past the fridge, and outside surely the sun is someplace up there but the February vista still seems lightless. The central-SC countryside looks blasted, lynched, the skies the color of low-grade steel, the land all dead sod and broomsedge, with scrub oak and pine leaning at angles, and you can almost hear the mosquitoes breathing in their baggy eggs awaiting spring. Winter down here is damp, both chilly and muggy, and Jay alternates the heater with the AC as various different people bitch about being hot or cold. Scraggly cabbage palms start mixing with the pine as you get farther south, and the mix of conifer and palm is dissonant in a bad-dream sort of way. A certain percentage of the passing trees are dead and hung with kudzu and a particular kind of Spanish moss that resembles a kind of drier-lint from hell, but in a very nice way. Eighteen-wheelers and weird tall pickups are the buses’ only company, and the pickups are rusted and all have gunracks and frightening bumper stickers; some of them toot their horns in support. BSl’s windows are high enough that you can see right into the big rigs’ cabs. The highway itself is colorless and the sides of it look chewed on, and there’s litter, and the median strip is dead grass with a whole lot of different tiretracks and skidmarks striping the sod for dozens of miles, as if from the mother of all multivehicle pileups sometime in I-26’s past. Everything looks dead and not happy about it. Birds fly in circles with no place to go. There are also some weird smooth-barked luminous trees that might be pecan; no one seems to know. The techs keep their shades pulled even though they have no laptops. You can tell it’s spooky down here in the summer, all moss and steam and dogs with visible ribs and everybody sweating through their hat. None of the media ever look out the window. Everyone’s used to being in motion all the time. Location is mentioned only on phones: the journalists and producers are always on their cellphones trying to reach somebody else’s cellphone and saying “South Carolina—where are you.” The other constant in most cell-calls on a moving bus is “I’m losing you, can you hear me, should I call back.” A distinctive thing about the field producers is that they all pull their cellphones’ antennae all the way out with their teeth; journalists use their fingers, or else they have headset phones, which they talk on while they type.
If you think that was a bit negative, here’s a peek at the Lobby of the Carolina Ice Palace from his perspective:
Express hauled out this morning at 0738h., and now here McCain is at 0822 almost running back and forth on the raised stage in a Carolina Ice Palace lobby so off-the-charts hideous that the press all pass up the free pastry. (The lobby’s lined with red and blue rubber—yes, rubber—and 20 feet up a green iron spiral staircase is an open mezzanine with fencing of mustard-colored pipe from which hang long purple banners for the Lowcountry Youth Hockey Association, and you can hear the rink’s organ someplace inside and a symphony of twitters and boings from an enormous video arcade just down the bright-orange hall, and on either side of the THM stage are huge monitors composed of nine identical screens arrayed 3 x 3, and the monitor on the left has nine identical McCain faces talking but the one on the right has just one big McCain face cut into nine separate squares, and every ft2of the nauseous lobby is occupied by wildly supportive South Carolinians, and it’s 95º at least, and the whole thing is so sensuously assaultive that all the media except Jim C. and the techs turn around and listen facing away, most drinking more than one cup of coffee at once).
These descriptions brought to mind Robert Burns poem “To a Louse” :
Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.
Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.
Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.
Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it-
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.
My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.
I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?
O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!