Alice Kociemba: State of Poetry

This is the sixth in our series of essays on the state of poetry. For others, check our list.

Notes on the State of Poetry

Maxine Kumin, in her poem; “The Final Poem” (Still to Mow, 2007, W.W. Norton & Company) quotes this advice from Robert Frost,

“Look/up from the page.  Pause between poems/Say something about the next one.  Otherwise the audience/will coast, they can’t take in/half of what you’re giving them.

Reaching for the knob of his cane/ he rose, and flung this exit line:/Make every poem your final poem.

In the past ten years on Cape Cod, I have heard Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Robert Pinsky, Maxine Kumin, Marge Piercy, Jorie Graham, Tony Hoagland and Martin Espada (among others) read their work to appreciative community audiences.  Their poetry, styles of reading and relating to the audience differ dramatically.  Yet what each of them does effectively is to engage the listener in the best of the oral tradition of poetry.

This reflection on “The State of Poetry” is based on my experience of directing the poetry reading series, Calliope, (www.calliopepoetryseries.com) and facilitating a monthly poetry book discussion group at the local public library.  We are listeners, not in the mainstream of the poetry world, who come to hear established and emerging poets read their work.  We are avid readers of contemporary poetry.  Many of our group are not poets.  In other words, I am conveying the perspective of the general public.  Poetry can and should become a cultural event on par with a concert, a play or art opening.  We can and should widen and diversify our audience.

At Calliope’s readings, the most frequent negative feedback audience members give me is, “Can you teach the poets to read better?”  These are some of the ways readers disconnect from the audience: reading poems too fast, swallowing endings, packing a reading with as many poems as possible, either overly explaining what the poem is about, or not setting the poem in any understandable context.

What is clear to me from hosting over one hundred and fifty featured poets is that the ability to read one’s own work to a live audience is hit-or-miss.  I have had some fine poets read poorly, and some not so fine poets read very well.   “Page” poets need support and techniques to perform well.  Open mic readers, too, with the pressure to read one or so poems, need to learn how to read more effectively.  Some are terrified, others hold the audience hostage, wanting their “fifteen minutes of fame.”  You can hear a tiny “thud” when someone falls out of your poem.  I use the open mic to test my latest revision and try to resolve an obsession over an aspect of craft in a poem-in-progress.

I think the increased popularity of performance poetry is a reaction to accomplished “page” poets who are not masterful readers, as the poets I listed above.  My experience with “stage” poets is that many perform better than they write—or that the tone of their work is sometimes off-putting—leaving me feeling scolded for not being politically correct enough, or angry or clever enough. This is not true across the board, of course. For both “page” and “stage” poets, the craft of the poem is essential to the meaning, and the performance is essential to conveying it to an audience.

In the past ten years, there also seems to be a shift away from the narrative poem toward a lyric, without much or any storyline.  The narrative poem needs lyric elements (rhythm, refrain, internal rhyme, and other “sound” strategies) to veer away from prose.  But on the other hand, the lyric needs narrative threads to hold its beautiful sounds together. One comment that poets seem to take as a compliment is “What an intriguing, evocative poem, but I don’t know what it is about.”  I believe it is possible to use both the left and right side of the brain, and to appeal to both the head and heart of the listener.  We need narratives that move us.  We need lyrics we can understand, and maybe even remember.

I have read Richard Hoffman’s wonderful essay, and he has spoken so rightly: “To drink from this river, [the ongoing living tradition of poetry] whether as reader or writer, is to be refreshed by the reunion of head and heart…and to be returned to a state of wholeness…” Wise words.  Treat your audience as though they were thirsty for your poems. In fact, they are.  They give us their complete attention.  In return, we should give careful and effective readings, heeding, as Maxine Kumin reminds us, Robert Frost’s advice.

Alice Kociemba

Alice Kociemba

Alice Kociemba is the director of Calliope – Poetry Readings at West Falmouth Library. www.calliopepoetryseries.com.  She facilitates a monthly poetry book discussion group at the Falmouth Public Library, an outgrowth of “What’s Falmouth Reading?” selection of the Favorite Poems project in 2009.  She is the author of a chapbook Death of Teaticket Hardware (2010).  Her recent poems have appeared in the Atlanta Review, Off the Coast, Roanoke Review, Salamander, Slant among other journals.  Alice is a member of the Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and the Jamaica Pond Poets.