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Poetry as Oral Storytelling

It’s always interested me what the essence is, of what gets performed when a poem gets performed.

It doesn’t seem good enough to say it’s play: I wouldn’t watch just anyone playing. I might share a specialist interest with the person who’s playing. But how would watching them playing give me satisfaction? Wouldn’t I want to play (and I’m speaking here as a person who likes to do audience interaction, and have guest poets, with something like “the more the merrier and the more disjunct the merrier” as my watchword).

When I hear a joke told (or, by extension, some storytelling) then I like to know that I’m in safe hands. I don’t exactly rest easy in knowing there’ll be a happy ending or a gruesome comeuppance; I more feel sure that the teller knows some plot mechanics, they’ve got their ducks in order, and somewhere in the telling, midpoint, something will take off.

I know I’ll have a sense of the characters having got just enough established, that some drama is combusting that will be satisfying to watch. I know that the teller may pause, deliberately frustrate or confuse us, until that midpoint comes.

And it’s the rare comedian that makes the joke that can only be told by them. The joke is impersonal. The tale is impersonal. They’re handed down.

What then of a recital of a poem by a dead poet? Of a classic? Doesn’t it have to be imbued with pathos? With character? With biography? With diamond-like phrases, word after word?

There is a whole school of poetry that uses performance as an improvisation. I think of Grace Lake asking around the audience for a pen (or just finding one herself, this was 25 years ago) while she amended a poem, in the published chapbook she was holding, as it felt it should go another way as of that moment of reading it outloud. And this is an untypical experience, but one that ties together storytelling and poetry more than improvised performance poetry. I think of Steve Benson taking in audience suggestions while adding to a sort of philosophical surrealist poem live, like a live art work taking a patina from the elements but choosing it a bit. I think of Ian McMillan shoehorning (and rhyming local place names suggested from the audience into spontaneous riffs within a narrative, with the same ecstasy he tweets with every morning on waking. He is a camera.

I think above all of Bob Dylan, who after all paints, and who makes his songs as a composition of senses and moods as well as images. Listening to a dozen different renderings of his songs live or in outtakes, one hears how he can squish up almost any part of any line in order to get some overall construction completed that moment. This is evidently true when Dylan takes a ballad into a rock-stomp arrangement or vice versa, but it’s also palpable as he sings a draft that hasn’t become interesting yet; or when he grumps his way through ennui. And yet his work is hard to cover, usually, precisely because most singers can’t find an internal logic to connect enough of its parts.

What I’m offering here is the opposite of the idea that poetry can’t be translated. That it’s couched in its exact manifestation, within its language and language-culture, with not a word unneeded. Yippee if that were true of many poems of the last 50 years, but it isn’t. We live in urgent didactic activist times, and the white heat of intense earnest.

When I translate a poem, I get a sense of its overall internal logic. (When I get it wrong, I feel awful about not having taken that internal logic on enough of its detours, its needs; but I still have found the exercise useful: the internal logic is a wrong rule that has to include more exceptions than I realised; not that has to take a different rule). When I edit a poem (an old one I’ve lost attachment and personal significance to, or someone else’s) and it’s not letting me in, or is boring me, I squish parts until something comes through (even if it’s not the intent of the poet). These skills can be applied.

In the upcoming course I’m teaching, I want to use experiences of musical setting, of translation, of performing dead poets’ work, of storytelling. Then ask: what is a poem’s memory trace; what do we remember of it, without looking up the exact words. And then, instead of praising the ineffable manifested rightness of the published poem, I want to ask: suppose we build some texturing skills that would let us make something satisfying and not sorry, live and not in guilt-ridden worship of the text set in stone (and the concomitant wish that we can one day be remembered as authors of such worshipped texts outselves).

What if we deliberately made poems (say, long ones few could memorise) that we can’t hold fully in memory, and we invented a new genre: sort of a new oral poetry, but using pens and computers and technology to diagram and storyboard?

Develop your poetry through traditional storytelling techniques on Ira Lightman’s new course, Poetry as Oral Storytelling. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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