BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
There's a type of oral reading that people ascribe "poet voice," often as a dig to the ways poets read their work aloud. And while sameness, homogeneity, and inauthentic performance can be grating, I couldn't help but find myself wondering over the years, why all the hatred? Why does anyone actually care what other people do? We all want to enjoy a performance, and we all have certain aesthetic, but the particular hatred for "poet voice" seems more than just an aesthetic dislike - but a cultural, class and race ideology.
Apparently, according to Atlas Obscura, an English professor even researched it. Marit J. MacArthur calls it “monotonous incantation," adding, “I just felt like there was a style of poetry reading that I was hearing a lot that sounded highly conventional and stylized. I became curious about what exactly it was, and why so many people were doing it … I wanted to define it more empirically.”
So, what did she find? She found a connection with religious ritual and the university’s distaste for the theatrical, citing that it all started, unsurprisingly perhaps, in academia: “People in academia are just more comfortable with suppression of emotion." Her full research was published in a 2016 paper, “Monotony, the Churches of Poetry Reading, and Sound Studies,” at PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America.
This notion of poet voice having some kind of rebirth in academia definitely implies some class issues (and poetry is known for being an exclusive club in the worst class and race ways), but I would argue poet voice also has to do with how we breathe - and why, for instance, meter and form, like iambic pentameter, has historically been so successful. Because of the heartbeat - our distinctly human heartbeat. We want to read, and talk, with rhythm, a rhythm that lets us breathe easier.
MacArthur also found this to be true, researching 100 different poets of various backgrounds, comparing "speaking voice" to "poet voice." According to Atlas Obscura, they focused "on 12 attributes, ranging from simple metrics, such as reading speed and average pause length, to more complicated ones, including pitch acceleration ('how rapidly the changes in pitch change … which we perceive as the lilt of a voice,' the researchers explain) and 'rhythmic complexity of phrases,' which measures how consistently a speaker draws out, or doesn’t draw out, groups of words."
Clearly, how people speak is tied to their linguistic background, or where they're from geographically, socially, and culturally. MacArthur also explained, “In a more natural conversational intonation pattern, you vary your pitch for emphasis depending on how you feel about something. In this style of poetry reading, those idiosyncrasies … get subordinated to this repetitive cadence. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, you just say it in the same way.”
While poet voice can feel like an oppressive cultural institution academia perpetuates, illustrating the luxury of education (thus, wealth and privilege), I don't think it's all that simple, especially considering it's still a performance. There seem to be two generalized camps of poetry readings: "academic ones" and spoken word or slam events. Slam poetry, which is often said to have started by American poet Marc Smith at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984 (although let's not forget that the The Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City was founded in 1973), illustrating a break from "privileged" poetry, clearly has deeper and longer roots - stemming from spoken word, which encompasses and has been influenced by hip-hop, rap, jazz, and blues, for example.
Performance poetry in Africa, for instance, dates to prehistoric times, often referred to as hunting poetry, developed largely in the Nile, Niger and Volta river valleys. In African culture, performance poetry is a part of theatrics and entertainment, an incredibly intrinsic part of pre-colonial African life and whose ceremonies included political, educational, spiritual and religious themes. Of course, there's also the ancient Greeks, who were fond of the Greek lyric and often performed this during their Olympic games, accompanied with a lyre, which were characterized by their specific metrical forms.
What I'm saying is: This kind of lyrical and musical performance has been seen in all sorts of communities and times, from spirituals to songs sung by enslaved people to church and gospel music to folk tales to the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Arts Movement. From Langston Hughes' "Po'Boy Blues" to Gil Scott-Heron's spoken-word poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" to Beau Sia's "Love" to Sarah Kay's "If I Should Have a Daughter" to Lee Mokobe's "What It Feels Like to Be Transgender," there's an array performances. Calling it "poet voice" does it a disservice - and while we could argue poet voice is different than spoken word or performance generally, poets all have voices, and poets all have a rhythm that starts and stops, similarly to jazz, in its unpredictive, breathy, heartbeat-like pulse.
Poet Saul Williams explained how hip-hop and poetry are culturally linked, illustrating the intertwined nature of all poetry performance, saying, "Hip-hop filled a tremendous void for me and my friends growing up... The only thing that prevented all the young boys in the black community from turning into Michael Jackson, from all of us bleaching our skin, from all of us losing it, just losing it, was hip-hop. That was the only counter-existence in the mainstream media. That was essential, and in that same way I think poetry fills a very huge void today [among] youth. And I guess I count myself among the youth."
Smith, slam founder, even has explained himself that "poet voice" is boring, stating, "I knew that the public scorn for poetry readings was an outcome of how it was being presented: a lifeless monotone that droned on and on with no consideration for the structure or the pacing of the event—let the words do the work, the poets would declare, mumbling to a dribble of friends, wondering why no one else had come to listen." Smith mixed, even if unintentionally, poetry with the masses, with Cubs games and bar culture and working class people, making it more accessible culturally, mimicking how poetry existed before academia "took it over" after the industrial revolution (and with the modern changes in education).
Unlike academic poetry, often lauded as stiffly on the page, spoken word has always been more intimate, which is perhaps what "poet voice" tries to emulate, even if subconsciously. For many marginalized poets, spoken word can be a refuge from white cultural institutions and prejudices, making it easier to explore racial and queer identities. Poet Jeffrey McDaniel has even said that slam poets “don’t need a degree or a letter of recommendation, which is why the slam community is far more multicultural than the academy."
But who is to determine what is a "good" performance - and what is a "bad" one? How can we undo cultural, racial, class, and gender ideas in order to deconstruct our own biases? How can you actually measure inauthenticity and truth? On a simple level, some people are merely more engaging performers than others, some people are shy - and some poets don't really want to perform at all.
In many ways, the criticism of poet voice isn't just about academia versus spoken word, or class and race dynamics, although it definitely is in many ways, but a way we criticize otherness in general - and art derived by a culture we feel excluded from.
Performance, regardless of style, connects people of all backgrounds through a set of emotions, musical and contextual cadences, and repetition of sounds and movement. By using a performance to explore social issues and identity allows the performance to become an experience both philosophical and political, in that all art is a political and personal statement based on the time it exists. (And of course, out of the time it exists as well, as a sort of relic of a moment in space.)
Why limit that art form, that nuance of experience? Instead, shouldn't we push for an array of forms and experiences, without belittling the ones we have, whose origins are more complicated than we want to admit, perhaps? Why play an exclusion game at all?
Of course, Isidore Okpewho, scholar, critic, novelist, and a classicist, summed up why oral literature and traditions are fundamentally important to the human body and expression, both verbal and silent: “Oral literature is fundamentally literature delivered by word of mouth” and that the "the bare words can not be left to speak for themselves.”
Okpewho added: “One of these resources is the histrionics of the performance, that is, movements made with the face, hands, or any part of the body as a way of dramatically demonstrating an action contained in the text. So important are these dramatic movements considered for the effectiveness of the story that in many traditions of narrative performance across Africa, a story is told in convenient movements or episodes, in such a way that each episode is preceded by a miming of its basic details. Without these subtle dramatic efforts, the story in the oral tradition is often considered to have been ineffectively told."
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017). They are the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.