Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Public Performance

Typical non-poet, apparently.
     Think of the reaction PoBiz types have to these two words:  "public" and "performance".  Any mention of the public makes some poets think of diseased primates two or three rungs below us on the evolutionary scale.  Apparently, their world view encompasses leprous CroMagnons and poets.  Nothing in between.

     A similar extremism arises at the mention of poetry performance, as this Facebook exchange illustrates:

Commenter:  "...every poet intent on giving public readings should have a few lessons from a drama coach or speech coach. Delivery counts!"

Responder:  "Honestly, the really polished slam-type presentation can turn me off, too. Anything that calls attention to the poet takes away from the poem, IMO."

S.F. 49er Head Coach Bill Walsh (1931 to 2007)
     Again, we see the assumption that if reciters are not droning mesmerists they must be self-absorbed emo screamers.  Nothing in between.  We can laugh at the notion that slammers, few of whom would know a drama coach from Bill Walsh, are "really polished".  Nevertheless, there is a grain of truth to this stereotyping.  Aside from professional (usually Shakespearean) actors, it is difficult to name many competent poetry performers, let alone any proficient ones.

     On one extreme we see Shane Koyzan's carnival barking delivery of a beer commercial ripoff, "We Are More", written for the 2010 Olymic ceremonies.  The truly disturbing fact is that most "slam-type presentation" is worse, and by a significant margin.

     Poetry had two other opportunities to impress the world, both of which came from the soporific end of the spectrum.  While insomniacs may disagree, both yielded disastrous results.  As we compare the two Obama inauguration poems, we add a new dimension to the debate about performing first or second.

    The prevailing wisdom is that going second gives one an advantage.  In baseball, for example, batting last comes with the knowledge of how many runs we need to score.  In court, the defense gets to speak last in order to answer any and all assertions by the prosecution.  Slam poets mention "score creep", where judges get progressively more generous (and drunk?) as the evening progresses. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #24
     Suppose we extend the gap between performances by four years.  Does the advantage of going last remain?  Does it hold true for Richard Blanco's 2012 "One Today" versus Elizabeth Alexander's 2008 reading of "Praise Song for the Day"?

     Sort of.  The wrinkle comes in the fact that lawyers, baseball teams, and slam competitors are trying to make a positive impression.  It is hard to imagine that these two speakers formed any such intent or effort.  Neither bothered to learn their lines--literally, their lines--or write something that anyone, least of all a poetry lover, would admire.  Both could have used "a few lessons from a drama coach or speech coach" relating to poetry performance.

     While robotic, Blanco's reading voice was more natural--sorry, less unnatural than Ms. Alexander's.  It was a solipsistic if not megalomaniacal list of desultory objects with little or nothing to do with each other, the country, President or occasion.

     In terms of technique, "One Today" starts out rather well sonically, with considerable sibilance and the assonance of "uh", "oh", and then "ai" sounds. 

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes,

     These repetitions pop up later, albeit sporatically, without any apparent purpose and against an utterly arrhythmic backdrop (making it sound as clumsy as rhyme without meter).  The language is flat and rambling--too much so for interesting prose, let alone poetry.  Instead of "twenty absent children" he bludgeons the audience with "twenty children marked absent today, and forever."

    Elizabeth Alexander's piece alternates between tedium and schmaltz, as evidenced by this cringefest:

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

    Ms. Alexander pays the same passing tributes to rhythm that Mr. Blanco pays to sonics. 

    In the end, we have two high school graduation speeches.  Valedictorians, not poets.  Which one is worse, though?  What is proven here?

    Because she cleared a crowd of people who, having faced freezing temperatures for more than an hour and 40 minutes, could not withstand 4 minutes of her "work", we have to give the nod to Elizabeth.  Her shoddy display paved the way for Richard's.

     This demonstrates a fundamental but obscure principle of scheduling:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #112


¹ - Before one of my fellow pedants mentions Robert Frost preparing to read "Dedication" at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration, he had just written it and could not trust his failing memory.  Poor weather conditions forced him to fall back on "The Gift Outright", largely because he could still do so by rote.  One wonders if Ms. Alexander, Richard Blanco or any of their fans (if such people exist) have ever bothered to memorize anything they've written.

   Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments and questions are welcome.