Today we often think of poetry as words on a page: a book of poems, or a poem in a literary journal. Poetry is often tied up in the reading of the text. It may be a quiet reading at home, or it could be a reading for class discussion. Before poetry was written, however, it was an oral art form. Epic poems were spoken in public gatherings and in circles gathered around a fire at night.
I believe that poetry is still primarily meant to be heard. If it can be heard in a public setting, so much the better. There is something about hearing a poem that that engages both the speaker and the hearer in ways that the printed page cannot do.
Finding a Moment to Listen
A few years ago, I was in the public library and I found an audio book of poetry. It was titled, The Poets' Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family, compiled by actor John Lithgow. It is available in print as well, and provides a wide range of poetry. Lithgow gives an introduction to each poet as well as commentary, which is helpful, but the most important thing to me was the hearing of the poetry, read by Lithgow himself. John Lithgow apparently has a preference for the spoken word, himself. In the cover notes we read:
From listening to his grandmother recite epic poems from memory to curling up in bed while his father read funny verses, award-winning actor John Lithgow grew up with poetry. Ever since, John has been an enthusiastic seeker of poetic experience, whether reading, reciting, or listening to great poems.
The wide variety of carefully selected poems in this book provides the perfect introduction to appeal to readers new to poetry, and for poetry lovers to experience beloved verses in a fresh, vivid way. William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dylan Thomas are just a few names among Lithgow's comprehensive list of poetry masters. His essential criterion is that "each poem's light shines more brightly when read aloud."
I checked out the audio book and thoroughly enjoyed the listening. It stayed in my car so that in driving to and from work, instead of listening to music hits or daily news I listened to poetry from some of the best poets in the English language. I highly recommend this exercise for any poetry lover or for anyone wanting to know more about poetry. Spend time listening, hearing the words and the rhythms of the poets.
“My Favorite Poem”
For those in the Birmingham area, this coming Friday night at 7:00 p.m. is a wonderful opportunity to hear poetry read in a public setting. The program is called “My Favorite Poem,” and will feature people from all walks of life getting up to read their favorite poem. I have been before, and it is a truly remarkable experience to hear a variety of poems. Like Lithgow’s book, it is a night for “the whole family,” so you will not hear objectionable language, but you will hear some fine poetry, and each poem will be someone’s favorite. This year I am pleased to be able to participate, so I will have a poem to share.
The event will be at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in downtown Birmingham (1800 Reverend Abraham Woods Blvd). In partnership with the Birmingham Arts Journal, the ASFA Creative Writing Department will host the Birmingham area's My Favorite Poem event. In its eleventh year, the event is set for this Friday, Sept. 23 and will start at 7 p.m.
I hope to see you there!