What to Expect at a Modern Poetry Reading

My dear college friend, Wesley, wrote me twice on the same day (trying to cover his bases):

[E-mail] “Frank Sherlock is our new PL here, and we were trying to have a slightly broader understanding of the types of poetry (genres, if you will) that have been expressed in the last 100 years or so. Any thoughts or overviews?  Let me know!”

[Facebook] “My little club (The Franklin Inn Club) was going to host our recent poet laureate.  I was wondering if you could give me a run down on styles of poetry and poets these days. Even more to the point, what is Frank Sherlock’s style? Our older members are sort of out of touch…”

And this was my response:

Trends in poetry over the past century. My Lord, that’s a whole shelf worth of books. I turned immediately to Facebook to see what else I might learn about your question—and there was nothing there. BUT…first thing this morning, there was your note.

I understand that your committee might have certain set ideas about what is and isn’t poetry. I run into people like this all the time. They expect rhyme and meter. They expect elevated language, archaic syntax and diction that suggest something sacred, if not outright holy. They expect a certain “arms length” tone in the poem, something that allows them the privileges of the “objective observer.” They expect a certain timelessness of the subject—no contemporary references, no artifacts that might help someone in the future my use to date the poem, and certainly no slang, weird modern spellings, or informal grammar.

There are a couple reasons they can be forgiven for making these assumptions about real poetry. First of all, if they grew up going to church on Sundays (as many of our generation did), they have the very special model of hymnody which, in many respects, has not changed for millennia. Through both design and necessity, hymnody fulfills all the expectations I listed in the preceding paragraph. And it’s a powerful model.

We also have the example of how poetry was taught in schools when we were young. If hymnody conforms to a huge list of expectations and conditions, then it follows that poetry, to merit our attention, must do so also—with the single exception of the inclusion of more secular concerns as subject matter, however elevated they are in their aspiration to approximate the sacred. Most of our school anthologies, therefore, represent selections that illustrate those aspirations. It’s no surprise that modern teaching methods, based on quantifiable performance, would focus on the quantifiable aspects of poetry (such as rhyme and meter). It comes as a great shock, then, when people discover that the vast majority of poetry in the past (except for song or hymn lyrics) did not rhyme, and much of it did not have a fixed meter. Poets they remember from high school or college as the supreme examples of all that is great about poetry turn out to be the greatest examples of violating all those rules.

There’s also a modern side effect of the when we were taught poetry. We associate it as something belonging exclusively to our past, to our childhood and youth. We were taught nursery rhymes by our mothers, taught to recite longer poems by our teachers, studied the thornier aspects of “great verse” under our professors. Now that we’re adults, as with so many other things associated with our schooling, we no longer have any need for it. We reverence it as part of our education, but feel it has nothing more to add to our lives and how we live them as adults. As a result, poetry is ignored by the vast majority of adults in the United States. They do not read it. And they associate it with college professors, effete men and girls, and “blue haired ladies” writing sappy verse about love and flowers, trying to recapture their past.

All that by way of saying poetry is alive and thriving. It is not frozen at some time in the past. All that has to be written has not been written. And modern poetry, even when devoid of end rhyme and strict meter, has a thousand criteria it adheres to that give it form, that give it life, and most important, that make it vital to the poet and the reader. But with poetry as with any other art, there are millions more practitioners than will be remembered in the future, and there are just as many practitioners who never master—may not want to master—this or that aspect of the art.

So, the modern reader or listener is given a variety of opportunities, including sticking with the tried and true, those poems that have been most anthologized (there’s a book of them called The Classic One Hundred, and a subsequent volume called The Classic Five Hundred). And at the other end of the spectrum is diving into the pool of contemporary poets of all stripes—from staid academics to slammers—and hearing them all on their own grounds. To me, it’s a historical challenge. We both know of the difficulty most classical music had when it was first written (check out A Dictionary of Musical Invective). We also know that some of those pieces eventually became the “steak and potatoes” of the classical repertoire.

It’s the same with poetry. I’m okay with reading a hundred poems in a contemporary anthology and coming away with only one poem I want to re-read—and one line, not necessarily in that poem, that I want to commit to memory. It’s the excitement of the hunt, the excitement of being one of the participants in the daunting process that will pass on a few poems from our age to the future. It’s exhausting and frustrating; but also exhilarating.

Philadelphia’s poet laureate deserves to be taken seriously, first because he’s honest. His work is true to itself and true to him and his experience. He has clearly worked hard on it, not only to make it communicate clearly, but for it to exceed its surface meaning and reach for something more universal in both himself, his listeners, and his readers. Very important: much post-WWII poetry shoots for obscurity, tries to beat the reader over the head with the message “I’m smarter than you.” Not Sherlock. He invites you into his poems, makes a space for you, dialogues with you regarding your expectations and his. I also particularly appreciate the “music” of his writing, how it’s not only constructed grammatically to work smoothly on the page, but that reading it aloud adds a whole other layer of meaning through his skillful juggling of vowel and consonant sounds to underline his meaning. He makes the actual sound of the poem part of the meaning of the poem. And I particularly appreciate his honesty in subject matter. He’s not sugar coating anything. This is the world he and we live in as it is, as we have to deal with it. The thing that triumphs in this world is not his ability to obscure the more vulgar or distasteful aspects of it, but to accept it as it is and insist that, in doing so, we always retain our prerogative to acknowledge that we are a part of it and we have a huge array of options to appreciate it and maybe even to to change it.

So, in many ways, Frank Sherlock is anti-academic. We’re having a conversation here; no one is smarter than anyone else. He also has a profound appreciation of both his contemporaries—it’s clear to me that, unlike most modern poets, he reads the work of his contemporaries—and his predecessors. He honors both, but doesn’t feel compelled to imitate them. Wordsworth has many wonderful poems, but the best person to write like Wordsworth is Wordsworth; the best person to write like Frank Sherlock is Frank Sherlock. And as the sole authority on Frank Sherlock, he deserves to be heard.

Ultimately, that’s my point. When you go to a poetry reading by Frank Sherlock (or by me, for that matter), the subject isn’t poetry. “Poetry” is a sort of vague indication of “how” the speaker is going to address his audience. It is best to approach any art with an open mind. Jettison the prejudices the title might suggest to you and go in with the question—whether it’s painting, music, poetry, dance or whatever—what do you want to tell me and how do you want to tell it to me? The subject of any reading, of any lecture, of any conversation, is the reader, lecturer, interlocutors themselves. And the degree to which they can come away with a fuller appreciation of their similarities and differences is the sole measure of the success of the whole enterprise—by which I mean life itself.