freedom of the poem: 3

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We’ve been talking about freedom and poetry, poets and freedom, freedom and writers. I had a thought last night about the freedom of the poem itself. More specifically, the freedom of the poem to speak for itself. We had a Belorusian poet, a Palestinian poet and two American poets, perhaps unfortunately – or fortunately? What do we think? – divided into two sets, with the two “International” ones first and the two Americans in the second.

What I noticed was perhaps a cultural difference (although Valzhyna Mort lives in America now; but she clearly ocmes out of a different set of cultural influences). Both Mort and Barghouti read their poems in their original languages, with no preambles. In fact, Barghouti said precisely two things in English during his entire reading. He said, “This last poem is very short.” And he said, “Thank you.”

They commanded the stage with their silences as much as with their words, and the words were as compelling as if they’d been in English, if not more so (and this is something I’ve found previously, as when a reading from Eugene Onegin in Russian brought tears to my eyes, or when I went to see Bergman’s stage production of Miss Julie in Swedish). Barghouti’s speech was so clear that even with no understanding of his meanings, I was moved almost to tears by his intonations and consonants. And Mort’s quiet authority – well, what I’m saying is that these two poets, who both come from places where “freedom” (of speech, particularly) has been a vital issue for both poets and everyone else, allowed the poems, essentially, to take over the stage and the audience.

By contrast, Jorie Graham took the stage and spoke for (I timed it) about (I didn’t realise the need to time it till three minutes in) five minutes about environmentalism, before reading a poem. She then, after announcing the poem, spoke about that for almost a minute. I wondered why she didn’t think the poems were enough to carry the weight. After all, aren’t we here because we think they can reach the parts other forms don’t reach?

Mark Doty also, in his more colloquial, disarming style, spoke a bit in advance of his poems, though no more than we’re accustomed to people doing. But this combined with his style itself to lend an air of conversation to the whole proceedings, whereas with the first two there had definitely been a sense of a SPELL being cast.

It was a shame, because I like his work, and I thought his bat poem, Pipistrelle, was very effective in its conversational, self-questioning way (having read it on the page, as well, before the day). (And a bit delightfully Merrill-esque, while we’re on the subject, though I might take up that line elsewhere.)

I thought it was interesting that both Doty and Graham “yearned” for the security of their written words on the screen behind them, which of course the other two had had. Doty’s words were, “There’s some security about the solid text.” I like that: The Solid Text. He said, with a humorous plaintiveness, “and all you get is the vibrations of my voice.” Rather like the bat in his poem, that only he could hear; in his poem he says, “Only some people can pick up its frequencies.”

But I think that’s okay. We’re about to hear a lecture this afternoon about Michael Donaghy, who wanted the poem always to speak for itself. In his workshops, if someone used an allusion and most people didn’t get it, someone would alsways start talking about “accessibility” or complaining about feeling “excluded” from it. Michael would just say, quietly:  “No, no. If one person in the room gets it, that’s enough.”

The freedom of the poem to be itself, to do the work, to carry the weight. Doty spoke in Pipistrelle of his tendency to “worry my little aerial friend / with a freight not precisely his.”

Mark, he’s a poem now! Maybe the freight is precisely his.

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