It is a sultry day; the sun has drunk
The dew that lay upon the morning grass;
There is no rustling in the lofty elm
That canopies my dwelling, and its shade
Scarce cools me. All is silent, save the faint
And interrupted murmur of the bee,
Settling on the sick flowers, and then again
Instantly on the wing. The plants around
Feel the too potent fervors: the tall maize
Rolls up its long green leaves; the clover droops
Its tender foliage, and declines its blooms.
But far in the fierce sunshine tower the hills,
With all their growth of woods, silent and stern,
As if the scorching heat and dazzling light
Were but an element they loved. Bright clouds,
Motionless pillars of the brazen heaven–
Their bases on the mountains–their white tops
Shining in the far ether–fire the air
With a reflected radiance, and make turn
The gazer’s eye away. For me, I lie
Languidly in the shade, where the thick turf,
Yet virgin from the kisses of the sun,
Retains some freshness, and I woo the wind
That still delays his coming. Why so slow,
Gentle and voluble spirit of the air?
Oh, come and breathe upon the fainting earth
Coolness and life! Is it that in his caves
He hears me? See, on yonder woody ridge,
The pine is bending his proud top, and now
Among the nearer groves, chestnut and oak
Are tossing their green boughs about. He comes;
Lo, where the grassy meadow runs in waves!
The deep distressful silence of the scene
Breaks up with mingling of unnumbered sounds
And universal motion. He is come,
Shaking a shower of blossoms from the shrubs,
And bearing on their fragrance; and he brings
Music of birds, and rustling of young boughs,
And sound of swaying branches, and the voice
Of distant waterfalls. All the green herbs
Are stirring in his breath; a thousand flowers,
By the road-side and the borders of the brook,
Nod gayly to each other; glossy leaves
Are twinkling in the sun, as if the dew
Were on them yet, and silver waters break
Into small waves and sparkle as he comes.
|–William Cullen Bryant|
Louder Than A Bomb is the name of a scholastic slam poetry competition in Chicago. It’s also the title of a new movie from Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, a documentary focusing on teens from four different high schools as they prepare for the annual competition.
The strategy of filming the run up to an academic contest and coupling the building intensity with an up close and personal focus on one or more participants is a well tried motif (e.g. Spellbound, The Great Debaters).
Moreover, slam poetry is not new. First manifest as a phenomenon back in the 1980s, slam rediscovered poetry as living art and simultaneously diverged from nearly all literary conventions. Slam is primarily oral not written. It’s raw and undisciplined, relies on performance, personal charisma and presence more than felicitous language. It arises from youth culture, not the academy, owes more to rap than to Shakespeare. Twenty years later, however, these contrasts no longer have the same shock value.
But despite the familiarities, in fact maybe because of them, Louder Than A Bomb comes off as fresh, vibrant and relevant. Having had time as a “traditional” poet to come to terms with slam’s radical approach, I felt better prepared to accept and consider it as a legitimate form of poetic expression. And having brought to the theater certain expectations with respect to the concept of the “academic contest as film” I found myself all the more surprised at the non-competitive elements that stood out so eloquently in Louder Than A Bomb. That these kids compete not as spellers or debaters but as poets uniquely facilitates their ability to discover each other as human beings. Throughout the film there is an out-loud dimension of enthusiastic a-ha comprehension and support. In a city known for turf battles and gangs, color and class barriers, poetry as a means of drawing children together is amazing stuff.
Just as poignantly, the richly detailed often troubled situations in which many of these teens are growing up directly influences and is interpreted by the poems. When Lamar Jorden, leader of the Steinmenauts team from the West Side of Chicago, in a voiceover at the beginning of the film says, “I was a bit of a troublemaker, and I did some things I regret. I would like damage a lot of things in my house, but my father never cried about that. When I got arrested, my father didn’t cry about that. First time I made my father cry, was the first time he heard me perform poetry,” one understands the poverty of communication in his life, and the r0le poetry plays in addressing it.
Even for Adam Gottlieb, progeny of nearly perfect circumstances, matriculating at Northside College Prep, one of the nation’s top schools, encouraged by his still married, affectionate middle-class parents, poetry has clearly deepened his sense of himself and of the world. Charismatic in his delivery, he channels the Beats, and his genuine feelings of fraternity for his “opponents” wows them and us. Nova Venerable, half-Indian, half-African American, representing Oak Park/River Forest, is more direct but just as mesmerizing, her voice edgy and wounded as she reveals her pain over an estranged and abusive father, and the threatened loss of a chronically ill brother. Nate Marshall, who represents Whitney Young, lives with his mother, both his parents having struggled with drug addiction, and early on points out for the camera where in the South Side neighborhood park he was “jumped” by assailants. Of all the works we hear, his come closest to rap in their pacing, rhyme-laced, upbeat and full of humor.
Despite the slam slogan, “the point is not the point, it’s the poetry,” I found the interactions outside of the performances complementary and compelling. Here’s verse that functions as a catalyst for understanding between children, and also between children and their parents (and teachers as well) at a critical juncture in their lives. When was the last time “serious” poetry could claim to be this essential? Could the literati be missing something?
Dana Gioia in a recent essay in the Hudson Review writes:
While the new popular poetry has received immense coverage from the electronic media and general press, it has garnered relatively little attention from intellectuals and virtually none from established poetry critics. One can understand the reluctance of academic critics. If they have noticed the new popular poetry at all, they immediately see how little it has in common with the kinds of poetry they have been trained to consider worthy of study.
As Gioia, who favors formal prosody, points out, in contemporary poetics, it’s mostly with rap and slam poetry that formal elements like meter and rhyme find unabashed celebration.
The students’ poetry itself provides the best evidence for both the vitality and sincerity of their interest. Was every poem declaimed worthy of publication in the Norton Anthology? No, of course not. But they did consistently surprise me with their coherence and power, their willingness to tackle thorny subjects. Perhaps given the overdose levels of reality TV currently being injected into our culture, the celebrity contests like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars dominating the small screen, the existence of poetry as a purer ambition for American teens represents desperately welcome iconoclasm. For anyone with an interest in the true wealth and breadth of American poetry, this is a must see film.*
*(In keeping with Louder Than A Bomb’s 10 point system for evaluating its declaimers, I award a score of 9.0).
There’s a good bit of history for the date, May 6th.
For instance, Olga Korbut, Sigmund Freud, and Maximilien Robespierre, among others, were born on this day. In 1527, Spanish and German troops sacked Rome, signalling the end of the Renaissance. In 1863, Confederate forces defeated the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower officially welcomed the public. In 1954, Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile. In 1994, the Chunnel opened underneath the English Channel, better linking Britain and France. In 1998, Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros to tie Roger Clemens’ major league record. May 6th is also police day in Georgia (U.S.), and International Diet Day.
But for whatever capricious reason, the historical factoid that resonates the most with me today is the admission on May 6th, 1757 of English poet Christopher Smart to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in London. He had developed a religious mania which compelled him to pray continuously, and apparently wandered the city doing so in public.
Samuel Johnson remarked, “My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place.” And also, “I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”
Smart himself wrote in his work, Jubilate Agno, composed during the years of his confinement (though not published until 1939):
“For I blessed God in St James’s Park till I routed all the company. For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchman smites me with his staff.”
In all likelihood, Christopher Smart suffered from bipolar disorder.
He was, if excessively ardent in his devotion, harmless. Certainly, far worse has been done in the zealous demonstration of faith.
Here is a poem for which he is well known. One can imagine what effect the loss of freedom and bleak ambiance of the asylum must have had on its author.
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry (from Jubilate Agno)
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually—Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
My apologies to anyone following my blog regularly.
We’ve been in the process of moving, which has constrained my time considerably, and I haven’t posted anything in much too long.
However, we seem to getting towards the end, or the beginning of the end…
Also, I just received welcome news regarding my film “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space.” It has been selected as the Third Place Winner, in the Experimental Film category, at the Los Angeles International Film Festival.
Here is a recent podcast interview I did in anticipation of the screening of “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space” at the WILDsound TORONTO Film Festival this Saturday, May 1st.
I’m happy for the publicity, both for the film and hopefully the compassionate, coherent side of the immigration issue, given the current experiment with codified racism and a Geheime Staatspolize version of the American Dream in Arizona.
Sadly, hatred and ignorance remain omnipresent and galvanizing forces despite the sublime milestone of a black president and our unique history as a nation of immigrants.
From the Associated Press: “Key provisions of Arizona’s immigration legislation, signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on Friday:
Makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally by specifically requiring immigrants to have proof of their immigration status. Violations are a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Repeat offenses would be a felony.
Requires police officers to “make a reasonable attempt” to determine the immigration status of a person if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is an illegal immigrant. Race, color or national origin may not be the only things considered in implementation. Exceptions can be made if the attempt would hinder an investigation.
Allow lawsuits against local or state government agencies that have policies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws. Would impose daily civil fines of $1,000-$5,000. There is pending follow-up legislation to halve the minimum to $500.
Targets hiring of illegal immigrants as day laborers by prohibiting people from stopping a vehicle on a road to offer employment and by prohibiting a person from getting into a stopped vehicle on a street to be hired for work if it impedes traffic.
The law will take effect by late July or early August.”
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
–Emma Lazarus, 1883 (Inscribed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty)