It’s one thing to memorize a poem, but quite another to stand up in front of strangers and give it voice so compellingly that you meld your own timbre and emphasis, pacing and intelligence to the poem’s essence.
Almost a spectator sport, you’d say, and I’d agree. That’s why I leap at the chance to serve on a judging committee for Minnesota’s Poetry Out Loud competitions when I’m asked.
This year the state “finals” were held at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, a fitting venue, named for one of the state’s favorite literary lights, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He grew up in Saint Paul, in various rented apartments, a down-at-the-heels member of the Irish upper class. He went away to college, taking the train east to Princeton, but he came back to write his first novel in an upper-story apartment on Summit Avenue, a well-preserved brownstone which I pass several times a week on my way east and downtown. When This Side of Paradise was published by Scribner’s in 1920, it made Fitzgerald an immediate success. He married his love Zelda Sayre and they danced and drank their way into the smart set, while Fitzgerald wrote short stories and the handful of novels we continue to admire.
Back to the young readers on stage: their poetry choices, offered by the national Poetry Out Loud committee, have expanded this year, so we are told. Everything from John Donne to Thomas Hood, Philip Freneau and Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson, Louis Carroll and Carl Sandburg, Stephen Crane and Wilfred Owen, Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats, Richard Wilbur, Robert Hayden and Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton (yes there are some men in here), Maya Angelou, Mary Karr, Garrett Hongo, then the humorist Bob Hicok (never heard of him until now), Virgil Suarez, Marge Piercy, Linda Gregg, Lisel Mueller, Michael Ryan, and a few others I’ll forget to name.
Eighteen young worthies had been selected by regional competitions, coming from far northwest to the south-easternmost tip of our tall tall state. Some were dressed to the nines–ladies in high heels and flouncy skirts. Others wore jeans or a tailored suit. They were game, but they were nervous. I took a brief glance at each, then buried my face in the text–I was the accuracy judge, which meant that I listened with all my might, and scarcely looked at them.
Their voices said it all. We are not equally blessed with low, rich sound. Nor with the ability to float the voice over line breaks to convey the syntax of what becomes with each passing generation, a greater sense of the spoken language brought to the page. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the group did better in bringing alive the richness in older, more structured poetry. John Donne, Thomas Hood, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe–the young renditions had charm and grace and “punch” in the right places, but not too much. Even Dorothy Parker’s structured, mordant humor they made emphatic and enjoyable.
But they failed with Emily Dickinson–“I heard a funeral in my brain,” she writes. Oh my! Her abrupt, spare whispers, full of portent but continually undercut with delicate, trenchant irony–well, it’s not poetry meant to be declaimed. It’s a midnight whisper, full of self-mockery, odd humor and despair. Punching it with the voice kills it, but these youngsters couldn’t help themselves. They gave Emily “punch,” which shattered her delicate, crystalline, mocking words.
They also didn’t pull off most of the long poems, which it turned out were mostly contemporary. Even Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” which is one full page of almost prose-length lines, led them into one kind of defeat or another. They could manage the beginning list of epithets which I so enjoy: “Hog Butcher for the World/ Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat…Stormy, husky, brawling,/ City of the Big Shoulders.” But the long, middle set-up where the poet takes on detractors requires a change of tone, almost to an argumentative whisper. Our readers tried to bull it through.
One young man did a dandy job with the working-class critique of builders and their escape clauses in Bob Hicok’s “After working sixty hours again for what reason.” Lines such as “My boss, fearing my intelligence,/ paid me to sleep on the sofa,” etc. came across with the right story-telling tact and propulsion. But many other readers got lost in contemporary works like Mary Karr’s “All This and More,” with its evocation of an armchair devil: “So your head became a tv hull/a gargoyle mirror. Your doppelganger/sloppy at the mouth.” Quite complex, the tone and attitude enscrolled with these heavy words. Very hard to lift off the page.
The two young women who won first and second place could not have been more different–one African-American with a deep melodious voice, the other Asian-American with a light almost playful tone. Yet each chose works to suit her voice and style. When the African-American young woman presented William Butler Yeats’ “When you are old and grey and full of sleep…” she brought tears to my eyes. She almost sang this beautifully modulated hymn to age and remembered love. “Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled/And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.” Poetry doesn’t get any better than this!