What Robert Frost Can Teach Performance Poets
Please. Please. No more. I can’t take another earthy diva bellowing an ode to her ample hips. No mores slithery temptresses urging loverboys to traverse the landscape of their bodies. Let’s do away with rotund wordsmiths defiantly extolling the joys of foodstuffs and fatback. Can we finally bid adieu to every minority—little people, black Republicans, Dick Cheney’s hunting buddies—whimpering about his or her miserable lot in life? And why are poets so angry? Black people mad about being marginalized, poor people mad about having to stand in long lines for handouts, minorities mad about being racially profiled, Asians mad about being stereotyped, women mad about disparities in pay, teenagers pissed off about curfews, Republicans mad about their rapidly waning power, Democrats mad at themselves for failing to take advantage of the Republicans’ rapidly waning power. And everybody’s writing a poem and looking for a stage and a hot mic.
There have been moments of sheer brilliance in the realm of what has come to be known as “performance poetry,” coupled with the emergence of a few household names—but only if you live in an incredibly cool house. (For instance, I’m pretty sure I was friggin’ brilliant during my three or four minutes on HBO’s urban-tinged wordfest “Def Poetry Jam.”) But there have also been moments—interminably lengthy, mind-numbing moments—that redefine the word “torture.” Take your pick—rapid-fire screeching, public (and pubic) therapy, bad stand-up and defiant stanzas of unbridled woe, from poets daring us to top their woe with ours. And trust me, in that contest, there no way we win.
I’m not going to single out “Def Poetry Jam,” but I will mention it because it’s such a glaringly public forum. The show pretty much mirrors a night in any poetry venue not sponsored by the Poetry Society of America or the Academy of American Poets. Anything can happen. There have been times when I’ve TIVOed a single spoken stanza to play over and over for friends and family, envious of the way it unfolds and explodes. But I know that every time an impressionable sort tunes into that painfully hip poetry television show and sees some painfully hip poet bellowing his pain, a devil gets his horns.
There’s just so much…enthusiasm.
Even Robert Frost understood. In “Education by Poetry,” a 1930 talk delivered at Amherst College (and later crafted for publication in the Amherst Graduates” Quarterly), the rumble-voiced poet described the loudmouthed open mic confessional—as practiced by many a modern-day performance poet—to a T:
“There is the enthusiasm like a blinding light, or the enthusiasm of the deafening shout, the crude enthusiasm that you get uneducated by poetry, outside of poetry. It is exemplified in what I might call ‘sunset raving.’ You look westward toward the sunset, or if you get up early enough, eastward toward the sunrise, and you rave. It is ohs and ahs with you and no more.”
Ohs and ahs and no more. That could be a blurb etched upon the foreheads of about 75% of the poets I’ve heard lately, well-intentioned bellowers who are masters of pretty pictures strung together or rants laced with vitriol. Unfortunately, overwrought enthusiasm—complete with grimaces, raised fists, clenched teeth and curled toes—is quite often mistaken for passion and, regrettably, talent. The poem itself is all but forgotten in the anger, the intensity, the vaguely choreographed histrionics.
But, according to Frost, there’s another type of enthusiasm.
“…the enthusiasm I mean is taken through the prism of the intellect and spread on the screen in a color, all the way from hyperbole at one end—or overstatement, at one end—to understatement at the other end. It is a long strip of dark lines and many colors. Such enthusiasm is one object of all teaching in poetry.” Speaking of a presentation he’d heard the day before delivering his speech, Frost marveled that “It had all the colors of an enthusiasm passed through an idea.”
Enthusiasm passed through an idea. Taken through the prism of intellect. Many colors. The object of all teaching in poetry.
One of the things I stress whenever I’m in a classroom—6th grade or graduate school—is the hazard of rushing headlong into a poem, driven by some overriding emotion, and spilling all that emotion—undiluted and hollow—onto the page. I urge my students to stop, take a breath, and look for an unexpected entry point into the poem—one that makes it arguably lyric instead of merely a lyrical argument.
As Frost stated in his speech, the idea is paramount; the idea should be the result of the poet’s eye and his intellect. The idea will guide you toward softer ways to say hard things; it will teach you the benefits of quiet, of knowing when a scream is warranted. Enthusiasm, when filtered through this solid beginning, is no longer of the “sunset raving” variety. It’s not ohs and ahs at the mere appearance of the sizzling gold, the persistent heat. It’s whispering quiet thanks that the sun has chosen to rise at all, again.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017); Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler (2008), a chronicle...