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ENDING PRESCRIPTIVISM IN POETRY READINGS philip gordon

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hile I can’t remember the first poem ever read to me, I can almost guarantee it was done so in a breathy voice that is synonymous w/ the word ‘poetry’ in the heads of so many people, syllables delivered as though written rigidly on a sheet of graph paper (but by damn you’re going to notice that iambic pentameter). Since the practice of consciously enjoying poetry has become less popular, poetry is often reduced to a cliché of itself. I would like to propose we re-examine what the practice of reading poetry is really about, and why our default approach might be doing harm to our potential expression. These days, a typical poetry reading is only attended by people who care about the concept of poetry as they envision it. Everyone has a private definition of poetry, but it’s likely that it has something to do with words, language, and human expression. So, in an effort to share that expression and beauty and language with the world, poets occasionally gather in groups and share their poetry in an oratory format. This is how poetry was done before writing, so it’s also partly a celebration of tradition. There is a worrying set of other traits which poetry readings have also taken on, however:

1. 2. 3.

Typically less than fifty people in the audience. Every poem sounds like every other poem (I will explicate on this below).

No free food.

The last one’s really more of a personal gripe, It’s really that second point I’d like to tackle. First, to be clear, I am not saying that every poem read by every poet literally sounds the same. There are as many subjects, styles, and deliveries in poetry as there are atoms in the world (maybe more). It’s also obvious that I’m generalizing—the slam scene, for one, has enough energy to trounce two of my three points, and I’ve heard they occasionally hand out small snacks. In my experience with more traditional poetry readings, there’s always a sort of mystified awe towards slam poets. Unlike the, reading-from-the-page cadence that can hobble a poet on stage, slam poets use words in tandem with their voice, adding a whole other dimension of expression to

their creativity. I don’t want to write an article in praise of slam poetry either—because while what slam poetry does is interesting, blending elements of hip-hop rhyme and delivery to establish a capella rhythm, which amplifies the intensity of the poem’s message—it’s not what I’d like people to think about. When Shaleeta Harper and I launched text (textlitmag.com), I was on stage minutes before our launch party wondering whether I should read the physics homework Shaleeta had brought her notes on as a poem. Even though there was nothing concertedly poetic about the homework itself—is that to say there wasn’t anything of poetic value within it? I started to look at the texture of the words, to think of ways I might be able to articulate them to different ends, achieving sonic textures and aural cadence that would emerge half-hidden, half-naturally in the text. I think instead I read some Facebook statuses. The point of that anecdote, however, is that the problem of poetry reading is not either wholly in the content or the method—it’s a combination of both, a sort of simultaneous realization that not only do we need to stop acting like only the things designed to be poetry are poetry, but that poetry is no longer designed to be read a certain way. This isn’t a new realization either— Page 15 ◆ WordWorks ◆ Fall 2015

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Wordworks Fall 2015  

WordWorks Fall 2015 issue was devoted to the ideas of retreats and readings, with many thoughtful and engaging articles, and a whole new des...

Wordworks Fall 2015  

WordWorks Fall 2015 issue was devoted to the ideas of retreats and readings, with many thoughtful and engaging articles, and a whole new des...

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