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The Poetry Wars, Part II

May 24, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Does poetry play a smaller role in American life and letters than it should? Many who have lately written to The Times clearly think so. Poems and poetry reviews in The Book Review aside, can anything be done to change this? I offer the following three modest proposals:

1--Abolish poetry readings.

2--Collectivize poetry distribution.

3--Get the poets off campus.

1--Abolish poetry readings.

Several recent correspondents point out that poetry is a more important, more powerful art in the Soviet Union and in Latin America than it is in the United States. They are right. I have it on good authority that Pablo Neruda once filled the 200,000-seat Sao Paolo soccer stadium with devotees of his work. Russian poets regularly address crowded theaters. American poets, by contrast, hold out in small university lecture halls or student lounges. What accounts for the difference?

There may be many reasons, but I saw one in action some weeks ago at a small luncheon for the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky. Knowing that I would not be able to attend his evening appearance at UCLA, I had brought along a copy of the bilingual edition of "An Arrow in the Wall" (Holt). After lunch, I asked him to read a poem from it, one I especially liked. "Of course," he said; but as for the book, he waved it aside. He stood. He moved a few steps away from the table. He paused--a long pause: We could hear the chairs squeak--and then, from memory, he recited a long poem in which his widowed mother begs him not to go to distant, dangerous America.

This was no poetry reading. This was, to repeat, a poetry recitation, and the difference between it and most of the poetry readings I have attended has at least something to do with the differing status of poetry in his country and in ours.

A poet who does not know his own work by heart confesses that his heart is not in it. Do you wish a large, a popular poetry? Tear down your lecterns, I say, tear down. Strip your goliards of their books. If they fall silent, strip them of their honoraria as well. Our literature is both written and spoken; at different moments in its history, one aspect or the other will require renewal; the spoken aspect requires renewal now, and readings do not provide it.

The typical American poetry reading is the quasi-liturgical enactment of the bookishness of American poetry itself. Shackled to the book, the poet typically seems to be trying to make the audience see the poem, not hear it: see what the type looks like on the page, the stanza breaks, the quirky spacing; see which words are in italic, which in small caps, etc. No wonder we are so relieved by the patter in between. That part, at least, is in real speech.

In and of itself, reading aloud is a good thing. Indeed, the new currency of audiocassettes enriches the appreciation of poetry more than it does that of any other genre. (More about finding good poetry cassettes in a moment.) But listening to poetry without a book at hand serves to highlight the consequences of the rupture of forms. That is to say, meter and rhyme, whatever else may be said of them, once enhanced the audibility of the compressed and (for that reason) difficult diction of poetry. Some contemporary poetry in broken forms is almost literally inaudible. It positively requires the eye. It requires, in other words, what only its printed form permits: an immediate doubling back from the middle to reread the beginning which the middle has made so puzzling, and so by successive reversals down the length of the poem, like a nervous squirrel descending a tree. Not all silent poetry reading proceeds this way; but until one has done a lot of no-turning-back poetry listening, one does not notice how much of silent poetry reading does indeed proceed this way. For poetry, the audiocassette is a medium beginning to become a message.

But reading aloud, however good, is a far cry from recitation. In recitation, the poem, the thing that took life from its creator, gives its life back, and the poet speaks as more than an ordinary man, as more than himself. Only to something this large can a large audience respond. In a reading, poem and poet remain separate, merely life-size. All is friendly, companionable, essentially quiet even when the reader shouts (and few do). Of the true, demonic power of poetry, there are in poetry readings at best only hints.

Abolish poetry readings, therefore, require poetry recitations, and see if some of the power of poetry is not felt anew.

2 -- Collectivize poetry distribution.

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