QUIET IN THE BACK THERE! ONE VOICE ONLY NOW PLEASE! By James J McAuley
(PI News, March April 2007)
When I came upon Kevin Higgins cheerleading and wisecracking about the ‘poetry slam’ on the ‘Opinions/Tuairimíocht’ page of the January/February 2007 Poetry Ireland News, I was reminded – and I am often reminded – of Dylan Thomas’s (alleged) response to a lady in the audience at a reading in New York, who asked, ‘Apart from yourself, of course, Mr. Thomas, who would you say is the greatest living poet in English?’ After a puzzled pause, the poet responded – Celt that he was – with the question: ‘This is a competition?’.
What poets, devoted to such a calling, would go through life composing poems if the work involved merely going up against a gaggle of poets in a tavern or on a stage, to see if he/she could win a trip to 'Mericay or a litre of Red Biddy? The kinds of poems fashioned for such occasions may partake of some features of verse, but contain too few of the constituents that make a poem powerful or durable enough to survive its utterance.
Surely Mr Higgins is just trying to get the same kind of reaction that the recital of off-the-cuff, ill-considered, ill-formed slam verses can get, when he castigates those of us who know the difference between the ‘overt competition’ of the slam sideshows at Cúirt and other festivals, and the vocation of poets who must ‘learn our trade’ and ply it as best we can in a society so scarred by ‘competitiveness’ – from greasy-till wrangling to nuclear warfare – that we really don’t need to go up against each other in some kind of stupefying combat, as a literary sideshow.
And why does he need to cite an American source as authority to support ‘slams’ as a ‘competitive sport’ on the one hand, and on the other hand as an alternative to what she labels ‘cut-throat competition’ in the groves of Academe, which latter source ‘poisons the mainstream “creative writing” community”’ on the other? Ah dear. Competition on all sides, no matter where we go! Sure, who’d be bothered writin’ the pomes at all if it wasn’t for the bit o’ crack at th’ oul’ shlams...?
Mr. Higgins is so enthusiastic about what he perceives as their virtues that he must extend the history of the slam backwards to the ‘exclusively’ oral poetry that preceded ‘movable type’. I have a feeling that the spirits of the Gaelic bards of yore, and of the wandering scholars of medieval Europe (not to mention the scribes from time immemorial who recorded poetry and drama in writing of one kind or another), would not much like this association with the transient slapdash come-all-ye recitals of your average poetry slam.
Having wiped his floor with WB Yeats reading in drawing rooms, Mr Higgins proceeds to assert that, somehow or other, Yeats’s hypothetical follier-upper is a caricature poet reading to five or six people in a hotel – some sort of ‘heroic failure’. Having recently reviewed his first collection of poems (The Boy With No Face, Salmon, 2005 ), I find it hard to credit that Mr Higgins believes that all there’s to it is to scribble down a mess of ‘poetage’ on a scrap of paper and yodel it out to an audience, and pretty soon you’ll be up there with Paul Durcan and Rita Ann Higgins and Louis De Paor. I don’t suppose those poets, with their diverse and seriously mind-altering poems, knew they were entered in a competition?
What really needs to be acknowledged is the truth: composing a poem is really hard work, if by ‘poem’ one is willing to accept its components – listed by John F. Nims at the beginning of Western Wind (McGraw Hill, 1992 edition) as ‘images, emotions, words, sound, rhythm, and an organising mind’.And to learn how to make bread from those oats requires a great deal more time than a week at Cúirt or any other festival. And endless, endless attention to what the Greeks referred to as the Muse. And acceptance, with what grace we can, of the truth of Chaucer’s line from ‘ The Parliament of Fowls’: ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’