Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Voice, Definition 2: Voice as Instrument

Poetry Daily informs us that Billy Collins has a new CD out. I like Billy Collins. I have some of his books, and I enjoy and still find useful his Poetry 180 project (I don't really undersand the purpose or connecting thread in 180 More, but there are many fine poems there). He's an entertaining speaker when he discusses writing process, or how to craft a collection, or when answering questions from an attentive audience. But his poems? Hearing him give them voice doesn't do much for me.

This brings me to the line between "poetry" and "performance art". In my Poetry Hosts group, we've been having a pretty active discussion about what "defines" poetry, and whether we as hosts should attempt to teach this to our audiences at all. In my series, I've heard entertaining performances of material I'd not call poetry, as well as poor readings of really excellents poems. So this leads me to ask: What's more important to me?

Bottom line for me: the poem exists on the page. Oral presentation of that poem may improve understanding or enjoyment of it, but if it doesn't work on the page with some attempt to apply some of the tools that separate poetry from prose, then we don't have a poem. I think I feel this so strongly because I believe poetry must be inhabitable, that I must be able to step inside a poem and hear it in my head, in my voice, for it to be successful.

This doesn't mean that a poet presenting a poem in his or her own voice shouldn't be a delightful thing. But the director in me wants that presentation to be more than, and different than, someone else's. Some examples that come to mind:

Lucille Clifton works on the page (I especially like the Clark Kent poems), but when she breathes into her own work it takes on a personality that suits the poem. It's her, mostly, but it's a dramatic embodiment of the work, more. I find the same in Coleman Barks. And while his own work and his presentation of Rumi share a slowness on the page and in his reading, it's a different slowness - his own work is sarcastic and nostalgiac, Rumi is neither of these things.

I can't go on about slams much, as I've never been to a real one, though I've featured good slammers in my series. Good poets who are good slammers follow the rule. You can feel on the page some of the energy that would exist in presentation. Different in your mind than in your ears, but there.

Back to Billy Collins: I never hear anyone but him when he reads. He doens't present his own work in a way that makes it different than what's on the page. I do enjoy his work, but I don't think I'll be buying this CD; I'd rather have the book.

A quick postscript: If you've belonged to AAP ever, you may have purchased or received a collection of reading excerpts. Dig it out and see if you don't find some great, great poets whose readings just don't improve their work.

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