Two items sparked my interest this past weekend. First, I read Ally Condie’s YA dystopia, Matched. Among the Society’s other sins is cutting down the number of poems in the world to 100. Otherwise, it’s just information overload, you know? Our heroine, Cassia, is given a hidden (and very illegal) copy of Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.
The poem forms not only thematic focus for the book, but author Ally Condie honors the very music of the words themselves. Even when our heroine does not understand exactly what the words mean, the phrases hold a kind of mysterious magic. There is power in speaking them aloud. Not a fantasy world power, precisely, the same power you or I can find when we connect to that perfect poem.
Cassia must burn the poem to protect herself, but so she doesn’t forget it, she secretly tells it to another character, line by line.
Oh, the power of the spoken poem!
I have tried writing this form, by the way, and I convinced they are called villanelles because they are villainously hard to write. Listen to the recurring phrases, coming back like waves, some crashing, some just lapping at your toes.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It’s really hard to find a phrase anyone wants to hear so many times in a single poem, and make it mean something slightly different each time. Yet when done correctly, how powerful this poem is, especially spoken aloud. And in a British accent.
Once upon a time, a good education included memorizing poetry. When I played a Victorian schoolteacher at a living history museum, I periodically hosted poetry recitations with my “pupils.”
Winston Churchill was one of the last and most famous examples of the benefits of such a Victorian education. Throughout his life, he would break out into lengthy passages of poetry upon the smallest excuse, much as actors break into song in musicals. In one of my favorite scenes from the movie The Gathering Storm, Churchill expresses his anger that no one believes him about the threat from Hitler. He swells up and recites,
Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!
It is well worth watching Albert Finney perform the role for this scene alone. The poem is Death and his brother by Edwin James Milliken, and yes, Churchill was known to recite it whenever he felt the occasion called for it.
I wish I had such an arsenal of poetry to draw from. I do recite some poetry, my own and others. Yet I am given to humorous delivery. Give me something with bad puns and wit. I can recite Ogden Nash, Shel Silverstein, and TV commericals.
In a way, movie and TV quotes have become our recitations. We can no longer quote long passages of Victorian poetry, like Churchill. But when one of my Facebook friends posted a single line from an 80s movie, without the title or character, a dozen friends chimed in with comments of other quotes from the movie. Movie allusions are our common language, that other source of shared art we draw upon to express what cannot be expressed in straightforward language.
So is the art of poetry recitation dying?
I performed in a poetry reading recently at Nickel Plate Arts, with the theme of love. About eight local poets brought our work. Most poets I know have very a great self-deprecating humor about poetry readings. We shower affection on any audience member who attends that we don’t already know by name. And rest assured, we will know them by name before they leave.
So I was pleased that for this event (which also featured art and cello music) we had about 100 people pass through. But I was most pleased by the poets, because about half of us were high-schoolers. A teenager’s perspective on love was quite a different thing than that of our retired English teacher, who has been married to the love of his life for decades. But that wasn’t the biggest difference.
The adults all read our poems. The teens recited.
As in, they’d memorized their poems (and performed them splendidly). I think we ancient ones surprised them when we stood up shamelessly with our words in front of us. Yes, children, it’s legal to bring your paper up on stage, but what you did, that’s a beautiful art form as well. To read a poem aloud is to taste the words on your tongue. To memorize a poem is to steep your soul in a brew of words.
In fact, it’s our teens who seem to be keeping the art of poetry recitation alive. At least, that’s what my second discovery of the weekend would indicate. I found a news article that Emma Libersky of Plymouth High School has won the Indiana State Poetry Loud Contest 3 years in a row. I don’t know this young lady, but if the youtube videos of others in the National Contest are any clue, she’s one talented artist.
Take this one of last year’s national winner, Anita Norman.
Wow! I think her voice and presentation are as good as Dylan Thomas’s. And she’s not even British.
So, okay, I love my movie quotes, too. I can rattle off more lines from Spaceballs than from Dylan Thomas. But I think there is still value in reciting poems. Will you help me rage, rage against the dying of poetry recitations by memorizing a poem today? The art of the poetry recitation is, indeed, not dead. If we get more people like Miss Anita Norman, it may not even be mostly dead (which is slightly alive).
And if you can name what I just quoted, you may have proved my point for the need…