Berkshire Eagle, The (Pittsfield, MA) – August 11, 2013


I did not attend last year’s Word X Word ( pronounced “word by word”) Festival in downtown Pittsfield with the intent of writing a column. In fact, I attended the semifinals on a lark after seeing an Eagle story about 15 year-old Drury High School student Heather Morris advancing to the semi-finals. Hooked, I ended up going to the finals on Saturday, as well as other Word X Word events. (This year’s Word X Word festival begins today and continues through Saturday, Aug. 17. For more information, go to WordXWordfestival.com) It has been often said that poetry is meant to be heard and not read as the primary method of experiencing it. If you read or hear some of the great poetry, it is quite apparent that the structure of the poem – its meter, its rhyming – are a subject of great effort. It is taxingly hard – and quite limiting – to write lines of a certain number of syllables, more limiting to insist upon rhythmic rhyming, and almost impossible to have words appear with stress on the same syllables. Yet when read by a Garrison Keillor on morning radio on PBS, the effort pays and the sonnet sings.

I once listened to a recording of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats who was piqued that others added inflection and varied the pace when reading his poetry. Yeats had made such an effort to maintain a rhythm and beat when he wrote his poems he was incensed when others removed that which he labored so greatly to include. If one goes on YouTube and listens to Robert Frost reciting his own poetry, one sees no exaggerated facial expression or tone of voice, even in the darkest or moving of his poems. There is a carefully maintained cadence.

An argument could be made that slam “poetry” is not poetry at all. Some of it is arguably not even “free verse,” with its less rigid rules of rhythm and rhyme. Rather, slam “poetry” could be seen as the poignant acting of elegant prose by method actors reaching deep in themselves for emotive power so that words are felt and not merely just heard. Those who do it make no apologies – it is performance art. Like the Roman oration, slam poetry relies on hand gestures and the verve of the spoken word.

In Shawn’s barbershop last year, there was yelling, anger, tears, and laughter – poets that are part comedian and actor, digging into their souls to pull out their hearts and put it on the stage for display. Heather Morris was crying so hard during one poem that she had to pause – a good thing. Yet it was apparent that her words stood on their own. Other poets had their own rhythm, cadence, and beauty; words spewed forth with such effortless seduction that they hid their carefully crafted structure, and answered the question whether this was poetry in the affirmative.

In Shawn’s barbershop that weekend last summer, there was the absurdity of three judges randomly chosen from the audience, and the nonsense of scoring the poetry as grading an Olympic diver for form, difficulty, and cleanness of entry – both a standard in the slam poetry culture. How well does Frost express his fatigue of life in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”? Sue, randomly selected from the audience, sitting in a barber chair and holding a latté from Dottie’s next door, tells you it was 8.7. Real prize money was in the balance of this capricious arrangement.

Fingers clicked. Judging was not a coveted task; when they asked for volunteers to judge, almost nobody raised their hands. All wanted to hear the singing of the Muses, the gods of inspiration, but no one wanted to play the role of the fates. There was a traditional booing and hissing of the judges, especially when they give low scores that audience members feel were undeserved.

At first I was somewhat critical of this slam poetry. As writer, as a columnist, I only have the written word. The words must work – I cannot read them to you. You do not see my face. I cannot act them to you. It is true that I must dig within myself for truth, but that truth can only fall upon you with this black type on white page that is before you. If you hear a voice, an element that is me, it is but the illusion I create when ink falls on page.

But the performance poets could cover bad writing with good delivery – the worth of the words did not rise or fall on their own merit. Likewise, the best of writing could fall with faltered delivery. But this is not necessarily a bad thing – it is just a different thing. And when good word meets good performance as in a barbershop on North Street this week, a gestalt of the two creates a transcending experience.

Slam poetry is more than the carefully crafted spoken word. It is the performed word. It is the felt word. And it is beautiful.

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