Before there were literary journals, Norton anthologies, and fantastic writing blogs like this one, poetry was an oral art. Beowulf was recited by memory for hundreds of years prior to being put to paper (possibly in the 9th Century A.D.). At 3182 lines, that’s quite a task; it certainly puts my high school task of memorizing Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy to shame.
Unfortunately, we no longer embrace the oral aspect of poetry as much. We have public readings and open mic nights, but these are often seen as special events instead of a core part of the experience of poetry. Poetry has become an only individual experience. We read it alone in the dark corners of our personal space, and I bet that most readers consume it silently.
I’m not saying that poetry isn’t personal, but it should be a personal experience that we have together. It should be, as it has been previously, an art that shows us that our most intimate, most alone thoughts are not lonely thoughts. I think this turn away from oral poetry has alienated many readers. Many think of reading poetry as a purely academic task, and they are turned off when they don’t “get it” in the same way that the university English department gets it. Poetry is filled with layered meaning and the complexities of rhetorical devices, but we who appreciate those aspects should not create an artificial distance between ourselves and other readers. Experiencing the poetry orally allows each of us to meet the poem where we are; it makes poetry a democratic experience.
What’s to be done about this seemingly hopeless situation?
Go to the readings that are happening. Any city large enough for a coffee shop or two surely has an open mic night where poets and musicians can share their arts. You don’t have to be a participant to enjoy yourself. If your local cafe doesn’t have these or other poetry readings, ask them to. If you write, ask to read your own work. Some places have Slam Poetry readings and contests. Though this style of poetry is not for everyone, these events are a beacon of hope for poetry as an oral art. Professional poets often tour, so go to these readings, too. Local universities are often the hosts to these events.
Read aloud at home. Read poetry to your kids, your roommate, your significant other, your cat, whomever. Invite friends over, and tell them you’d like to share a few poems you’ve been reading. And ask them to share with you. In my opinion, this could be much more fun than just discussing your favorite sitcom at your dinner parties.
I have a few ideas as to how I’ll help the cause. As soon as I can find my computer mic, I’ll be adding readings of my own poems as I publish them here. I don’t know if my netbook’s internal mic is up for the task. I’m working with Ida Red on organizing a monthly poetry reading here in Tulsa that will feature local poets for more time than what we get at open mic. More details will be shared as we work them out.
Happy reading, friends.
p.s. For my deaf friends, I hope I haven’t alienated you with my praise for the auditory experience. We can all benefit from the public personal experience I described, though your medium of expression will be different.