Monday, October 19, 2009

Heard any good poetry lately?

We often come to a story, a play, or even a script, cold. That is, the words we hear most everyday are words with a yoke about the neck, words chained to a desk, words that are often in a real sense ‘enslaved’ to commercial purposes. Hearing these words so often, our sense of hearing atrophies. It often takes a special effort to free ourselves from those other lesser associations, before we can even begin to hear words for what they have at least the potential to be: pathways to honest expression and communication.

For the actor this is a serious concern – or, to put that in a more positive light, a serious challenge. Going from listening to hobbled words and hamstrung expressions, to having to evoke the inner struggles of a character that uses these same words, is on its own a daunting task. In my second week of an advanced acting class with Kevin Lasit I had ten minutes to create a convincing portrait of a potential pedophile confronted by a nun (a scene from the play and recent film, “Doubt”). There are certainly other ‘tricks’ that an actor can employ to achieve the desired result, but it would help if he or she could quickly see through the everyday associations of words, to their root meanings or their potential to do more than sell a product.

I was in Lowell this past weekend, attending the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. I could have driven home at the end the night on both days, but I didn’t want to treat the experience casually. I wanted total immersion. I wanted to wash and rinse and repeat, to clean my brain of as much useless information as possible. I wanted – to use a modern expression, to free up some disk space. I wanted to be ready to hear what was actually being said.

What I am saying – put more directly, is that poetry is a wonderful antidote to the infected language we are all exposed to, night and day, week in and week out. It is in a sense, a tuning fork for language: allowing us to begin to hear what others are saying, or to begin to express ourselves  - with words that are already ‘in tune’. Poetry is actually as much about hearing, I believe, as it is about reciting words. And when we can hear the words – we might actually be able to respond in an authentic, effective manner. Maybe.

Postscript: This year in Lowell I 'discovered' several new poets (new to me) that I was moved by, among them Jill McDonnough (whose recent collection of 50 sonnets, Habeus Corpus, chronicles 50 executions in the United States, beginning with the first, James Kendall - in Jamestown, Virginia, sometime in 1608, through Michael Ross, in Somers, Connecticut in 2005), and Michael Casey - who first came to prominence with a collection of poems entitled "Obscenities", which first gave voice to those who served in the military in Vietnam (Casey, a native of the Lowell area, was an MP in Vietnam). For a real exposure to McDonough, there is a 38 minute recording of her reading at the Boston Athaneum (where she did much of the research for Habeus Corpus) HERE. To purchase Habeus Corpus or Casey's Obscenities, use the yellow links in the right column under Partners in Rhyme.

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