Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Poetry matters in a time when words are devalued

When words are devalued, poetry matters.

It hit me on Monday night at the Poetry Out Loud state competition at the LCCC Theatre in Cheyenne.

Students traveled from high schools in Riverton, Jackson, Sundance, Worland, Buffalo and Moorcroft to recite poems. Prizes are involved, including a trip to Washington, D.C., for the winner where he or she might win a college scholarship. Still, Wyoming offers its best and brightest Hathaway scholarships and a host of financial aid packages to its lone four-year state university and seven community colleges. It may be that these students like poetry, or like the way it sounds. Some are theatre people who know how to memorize. Some are speech-and-debaters who know the tactics of presenting in public.

On this night, they and their chaperones had braved blizzard conditions to drive hours to Cheyenne.Some didn't make it as roads closed.

My role was prompter. I provide lines when the student got stuck. If they did, which they didn't. So I listened closely. I knew some of the poems. I can still recite Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade." The nuns made me memorize it during detention at St. Francis School in Wichita. That was detention in 1963 -- memorize a poem and recite it before you depart. The nuns had corporal punishment at their disposal.

Catholic school student: A nun hit me today at school.
Catholic school parent: That's nice, dear. Go wash up for dinner.

They could have made us memorize the Book of Exodus. In Latin. They chose poetry.

Last night, as I listened to Tennyson's poem, I realized that it was about a suicide mission during the Crimean War. Six hundred British cavalry rode into a Russian barrage and many never came back. The poem was meant to rally the Brits against the Russians or any foreigners who threatened John Bull. On the other side was Leo Tolstoy, recording the war from his P.O.V. The Crimean War was nasty and brutish, as are most wars. Listening to "Charge" now, I couldn't help but think of World War I and Korea and Vietnam.

Vietnam. Two of the students recited Bill Ehrhart's "Beautiful Wreckage." Ehrhart is a Vietnam combat veteran. He knows a few things about war.
In Vietnamese, Con Thien means
place of angels. What if it really was
instead of the place of rotting sandbags,
incoming heavy artillery, rats and mud. 
Ehrhart's words coming from the mouth of a 16-year-old holds a poignancy that only an older person can understand. Ehrhart went to war right out of high school so he wasn't much older than these students when he was in Con Thien with the rats and mud. In Trump's America, are we looking at the next generation of young people about to be transformed into warriors for a nebulous cause?

One poem that surprised me was Mina Loy's "Lunar Baedeker." The poet and the poem were new to me. The British poet was a Paris bohemian, mother, and artist. Her warfare was gender-based. A few lines from "Lunar Baedeker:"
A Silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
Loy was a futurist, a member of the avant-garde who specialized in word play. My question: how come this is the first time I heard any of her poems?

Today is International Woman's Day and, in the U.S., #ADayWithoutWomen. Makes me curious about women poets such as Loy, Emily Bronte, Mary Cornish, Sara Teasdale, Brenda Cardena, Adelaide Crapsey, and Robyn Schiff. These were some of the poets the students decided to memorize and recite. They choose different subjects than male poets. No "Charge of the Light Brigade" from Loy. Instead, she wrote "Human Cylinders:"
Simplifications of men
In the enervating dusk;
Your indistinctness
Serves me the core of the kernel of you
Or, from "Parturition:"
Rises from the subconscious
Impression of a cat
With blind kittens
Among her legs
Same undulating life-stir
I am that cat
Avant-garde poets were not easily understood. But more erudition exists in these poems than the daily natterings of our current president.

Probably goes without saying. But there it is.

Get more info about Poetry Out Loud at the Wyoming Arts Council web site.

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