I had been invited to read by Dan Stalter, along with others from the Albany poetry scene, at this event put on by The Intangible Collective. It was a night of spoken word followed by Hip Hop sets from Brainstorm/Dustwun Productions & NYC MC's Fascious, Bamboo MC, & B-Nice, at Valentines on New Scotland Ave. in Albany, NY. I was there on a kind of rushed night for me & the place was already packed when I arrived, clearly the oldest guy in the place.
Some of the younger poets from the Collective performed ensemble, with poems/lyrics memorized, like those talent shows on TV that are so popular (back even before my youth there was the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour" on radio). One thing I've noticed, & commented on this Blog previously, about hip-hop inspired spoken word is the tendency to preach, or harangue, typically using broad, abstract concepts like "oppression" & "pollution" (they like these female rhyme endings). I'm usually in agreement politically with these poets (I haven't heard any right-wing rappers yet), but I just don't respond well to preachers.
So when a couple of young guys are on stage telling me what's wrong with the world & what I need to do to change it, preaching, not doing poetry, I get rebellious, even when I agree. If it had all been worked up with images, & subtlety & not just rhyme & hammers I might have responded better. & it's not that I'm adverse to political poems, as anyone who knows my work can tell you ("sex, death & politics" are my 3 main themes -- what else is there?). So when it was my turn to read I scrapped the poem I had planned on reading & went for the first of those themes, snarky & sexist. I was rewarded by Mary Panza calling me a "bad boy." She, Don Levy, & Murrow were among the older poets who performed, including Miriam Axel-Lute, whose poem on refusing to be a quiet woman should have taught the crowd how to get your message across without finger-pointing & breaking in skulls. A few of the other poets gave good, poetic performances, including Shara Bender & Dan Stalter.
Earlier that day I had been reading an issue of American Poetry Review & found a short poem by Jane Hirshfield, "Returned from Long Travels." It is 15 short lines, unpunctuated, a bit more spare than her other work. There was also a short essay in APR's "The Poet on the Poem" series in which Hirshfield talked about this poem. In her essay, she describes traveling to Syria, Jordan, Israel, Ramallah, and Turkey, talking to young students about their lives in these difficult, war-torn places. The students told her she should tell people in the USA, "...that we are just like you, we want respect, we want to fall in love, we want to study. ... Tell them we are Syrians, not 'Arabs,' not terrorists. Tell them we are afraid..." Hirshfield then goes on to explain that the poem was written immediately after that trip, & she goes on to link the poem to her experience in the places she visited & the politics there.
Without the accompanying essay I would have no idea on reading the poem itself that there was any political content at all behind it. The poem, without the essay, is a failure as anything except self-indulgent poeticizing. The essay, which doesn't depend upon having read the poem, is an effective statement about the commonality & frailty of existence, & the struggle for Justice.
I'd rather the preaching was left in the churches, temples, whatever; it's easier for me to avoid it: I just don't go in. Same with the limp, precious poetry: leave it where I know I can avoid it. But poetry -- indeed, all Art -- can be effective in making meaningful statements about philosophy, religion, politics, any Big Idea, as well as being aesthetically pleasing. It doesn't have to be "either/or", rather, as I heard Anne Waldman say, it can be "both/both."