Saying Goodbye (Elliot Levy)

Saying Goodbye (Elliot Levy)

Elliot Levy performs spoken word at the commencement of Harriton high school. Unlike most commencement speeches, he emphasizes that people will come and go in your life. He says that here at graduation will be last time the students can call themselves classmates. His performance emphasizes the inevitable fact of saying goodbye: “friends you saw every weekend will become facebook posts and high school reunions” and memories will be pushed “farther back into your mind.” He does not mope at this harsh reality, he says that “you are constantly changing you must do so to adapt or life will leave you behind.” So, even though your classmate will not be physically be there, your classmates influenced you and you will carry that all your life. I admire that he did not speak empty words that at the end of day, are not true. Most people in high school will not be a part of your life, but he encourages his class to go forth and “let the world know you are coming.” As you go out, you as a person carry the memories and the people in the person you are, though not in your mind.

Elliot Levy is now at Emory University and is part of the Emory Slam team. It is inspiring to see how much he is involved with spoken word, before college and in the present. Poetry is not sitting in the dust to be read by a few students for academic person. It is alive and vibrantly performed by students like Elliot, passionate to send his classmates out in the world in poetic style and eager to express himself through poetry.


Poetry: no venue necessary

See this video by The New York Times.

Poetry is no longer confined to the printed page. It has expanded beyond a relationship between a writer and a reader; now poetry is also between a speaker and a listener. I often limit poetry to the prior relationship and underestimate its presence in our everyday lives, but a report on The New York Times once again reminded me that poetry is evolving and present.

The report was on a new movement called: “poetry: no venue necessary.” This movement extends the concept of spoken word. Instead of professional poets reading poetry aloud for performance or competitions, poetry now is being read aloud by ordinary people in ordinary places, like a subway station. Though this may be reminiscent of musicians performing in the streets, there is something different about this movement. The people partaking in “poetry: no venue necessary” are not poets by living, but people with the simple desire to fill the long silences of subway rides with poetry. This movement continues to expand; it has been witnessed even in self-service laundries.

The evolution of poetic expression is intriguing: from the courts of palaces, to the educated class, to school classrooms, and now to the streets. Poetry is becoming more and more available to the people. Poetry used to be available only to the educated. Once education expanded, poetry was (in a sense) confined to the classroom. Now, even that barrier was shattered with spoken word and public poetry reading. Some may claim they do not have time to sit and read poetry. So, poets respond in kind by reading the poetry to them while they do the mundane things of life, such as taking the subway home from a long day of work or even doing laundry.  

Patricia Smith

         While I was studying for finals I ran into Phillip Winkle, one of the slam poets who performed at Emory’s Minds on Mics Showcase that I, along with several other classmates, attended. We started talking about slam poetry, and I asked him some questions about his performance. I was curious as to how he prepares his performances and what he does to get “in character.” He told me that besides simply memorizing the words for each poem, he tries to associate a certain feeling with each poem, so that when he performs them he naturally gets into a certain mindset. This prompted Phillip to show me a YouTube video of what he said was considered some of the finest slam poetry. This particular poem had won numerous awards and had gained recognition within slam poetry circles, according to Phillip. The poem, called Skinhead, was written by Patricia Smith and originally published in her collection, Little Towns, Big Talk in 1992.

            This poem is one thing to read, but to watch Smith perform the poem was pretty extraordinary. Skinhead is a poem that is told from the perspective of a white male who is a self-described racist and homophobe who enjoys attacking people of color and homosexuals. The narrator views himself as someone who is trying to win back America from those who he considers to be inferior. He describes a work accident that resulted in him losing a few of his fingers as well as his ability to work; he now resents non-white Americans for holding jobs like the one used to do. The honesty and transparency of the narrator’s racism is appalling and disgusting; he is one of the more foul characters I have come across in literature, far worse than any Hollywood villain. In one passage the narrator says:

It’s a kick to watch their eyes get big,
round and gleaming like cartoon jungle boys,
right in that second when they know
the pipe’s gonna come down, and I got this thing
I like to say, listen to this, I like to say
“Hey, nigger, Abe Lincoln’s been dead a long time.”

I get hard listening to their skin burst.
I was born to make things right.

             These chilling lines demonstrate the narrator’s sociopathic behavior; he takes pleasure (he claims it to be sexual pleasure, it is unclear if this is hyperbole or not) hearing his victims’ skin burst. The line “I was born to make things right” is a motif that occurs several times throughout the poem. The narrator uses this as a justification for his racial crusade. He sees himself as doing a service to America since it is being taken over and jeopardized by his enemies (which probably include all non-whites and non-Christians, as well as LGBT people etc…. the list probably goes on and on).

            Reading this poem and watching Patricia Smith perform this poem are two very different experiences. While the words alone constitute a powerful and well-written poem, Smith’s performance of the poem is on another level. You might think that Skinhead would somehow lose its effectiveness if it were performed by a black woman, the antithesis of the narrator. In practice, the opposite is true. Smith, against all odds, puts on the costume of a white male skinhead in an amazingly convincing way. Her crackling laugh towards the end of the piece adds to the character’s already haunting persona. It is especially fascinating to see someone get into the mindset of her oppressor. Smith allows her fictional character’s voice to be heard, when people like this are normally on the fringes of society and are generally ignored by all except like-minded people. Smith obviously doesn’t do this out of empathy or as a means to help advertize this fictional character’s cause. Instead, this poem serves as an exposé of a mindset that society often ignores in the hope that it will fade away as just another ghost of America’s ugly history in regards to racial discrimination and bigotry. Smith rightfully doesn’t think that this is something that should be ignored, rather, she is making sure that we are well aware of the fact that this issue is real and is current, and that we still have much more in common with those pages from our history books documenting 1950s America than we would like to admit.  

            This performance is absolutely worth watching. It may not be uplifting but it’s definitely a good use of a few minutes as a study break. Good luck with finals everyone. 

Transcription of the words:

Live performance of the poem:

Seamus Heaney Collection

On the final day of class I was able to select Seamus Heaney’s collection of poems “Human Chain”. I am very happy with my selection and would like to share my favorite poem from the collection. It is called “Uncoupled” it has two numerically headed sections. Section one describes a woman, and the second a man, both of whom have experienced heartbreak. I like Heaney’s style and would describe it as confessional. It is very personal and imagistic, but instead of things Heaney focuses on people, describing them meticulously. This poem kind of reminds me of a duet between a two singers, with each separated section acting as a verse and Heaney’s observational final stanza as the chorus. 

The most clever device is the poem’s embodiment of the theme. Heaney is communicating the understanding of a feeling before knowing the name, and through the poem he describes the situation, and waits till the final line to name the emotion the two people he highlights share. The presentation of the poem works to further demonstrate the theme. This technique along with the unique tone of the poem are what I admired most about it. If anyone would like to listen to the whole poem here is the link!

Shel Silverstein and Where the Sidewalk Ends

I don’t know if I was the only one who read Shel Silverstein when I was growing up, but it recently came to my attention that he passed away. Shel Silverstein, born Sheldon Allan Silverstein in Chicago was an American poet, cartoonist, and author of children’s books. He also dabbled in songwriting and screenwriting.

            One of his most famous books, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a collection of poetry with illustrations that address common childhood shenanigans and anxieties along with many purely fantastical stories. This collection of poems was also picked as one of “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children”. Silverstein never studied the poetic style of others, so he quickly developed him own quirky and conversational style which I think was why I found his work so much fun to read.

            His most successful book, The Giving Tree, generated quite a bit of controversy because of its plot. It was about a boy and his friendship with a tree and how their relationship changed overtime. As a child, the boy wanted to pick apples from the tree to sell. When he was married, he chopped down her limbs to build a house. Then as an old man, when the tree was reduced to nothing but a stump, he asked her for place to rest.

            As I said, I recently discovered Silverstein passed away some time ago, in 1999. When I think of poetry in my childhood, the only author that comes to mind is Shel Silverstein. Of course, I read books like Dr. Sues, but those always seemed like full stories to me. I loved Shel Silverstein because of his style, and the funny pictures that accompanied his work. It is a shame that he has passed because I know children truly enjoyed his work. I hope that another poet comes along that can pioneer a new style that will be truly enjoyable for children in the future.

Course Reflection

            Taking a poetry class was a great way to round out my course load and develop my reading and writing skills. This course got me thinking about literature and language in a way that I really hadn’t done before. In my high school classes we touched upon poetry, but we never explored poetry in a very in-depth way. While we did talk about rhyme scheme, the farthest we ever got in regards to meter was iambic pentameter, and we never really talked about poetic forms. This class was a good introduction to some of the most important and prevalent poetic forms, as well as the literary techniques involved in poetry. The papers that we had to write for this class definitely helped me develop as a writer because they forced me to think about and analyze language in a way that I don’t normally do.  The pastoral paper was especially challenging for me. I found it difficult to synthesize an argument about the pastoral since my understanding of that form was, and still is, somewhat shaky. I had fun leading the class and talking about Dr. Seuss since it was a way to think about poetry that is considerably more accessible than the usual class material while still retaining many of the same core ideas in terms of poetic structure and techniques. Unfortunately, my delivery of the information wasn’t great due to a combination of disorganization, nerves, and a lack of rehearsal. I think I owed the class a better presentation than what I actually did. That being said, I still got quite a bit out of doing the presentation and learned some valuable lessons in terms of organization and public speaking.

            This class has given me a better sense of confidence in terms of reading language that may not immediately be clear. Hopefully figurative language will seem more obvious in the future thanks to all of the metaphors and other figurative language that we have been exposed to over the course of the semester. I think this will serve me well in the future in both formal academic settings and pleasure reading.

            Perhaps my favorite part about this course was the fact that it included such a broad range of poetic forms. The diversity of poetic forms was something that I hadn’t really appreciated or comprehended before taking this class. Learning about some of the more “abnormal” forms of poetry was a highlight for me. I especially liked some of the 20th century forms. Bennett’s presentation on Flarf was really cool and showed how poetry can be really fun in a goofy sort of way. I also really appreciated all three presentations on rap music. There is definitely something to be said for the fact that perhaps the most popular form of music right now is so heavily rooted in poetry (at least in a more obvious way than other forms of music where the poetic aspect of lyrics are often overshadowed by the lyrics’ melodic value). The presentations about rap music have also inspired me to listen to rap with a higher degree of focus on what the language is trying to accomplish and the techniques that the artists use.