Spoken word — from child’s play to a permanent place in the mind
Remember that childishly perverse jingle from elementary school: “I see London, I see France, I see so-and-so’s underpants”? That frivolous little chime started ringing in my head recently, perhaps because of two movements in our society. First is the campaign to stop bullying in the schools. I must admit that as a child I loved that chant and got a first grader’s excited giggle at being able to parrot it aloud with other children. I don’t think I meant anything malicious – though the poor victim might have thought otherwise. It was the pure joy a spontaneous recitation.
Which brings me to the second societal movement, the advent of spoken word poetry. I also have to admit that I wasn’t really keen on spoken word poetry when I first read poems that were written in a spoken word context. They were – I thought – lame. But then many of the poems in such first-rate literary magazines as Poetry can seem lame occasionally. And as I’ve seen and read about high school kids getting ecstatic about poetry through the spoken word, I’m suddenly taken back to my own high school years when I participated in the National Forensic League competitions, and I realize how foolish my skepticism was. Most often I did the debate or persuasive speaking contests, but occasionally I would participate in oral interpretation, which was recitation of poetry. I loved those contests. They were without the tension in a contest like debate where you never knew what argument your opponent might throw at you. Oral interpretation was more like a frolic, freeing the body and the tongue to concentrate on meaning and to take the audience along with you.
When I think further back, what made me first love poetry was my mother reading it aloud to me when I was four and five – the way I read Where the Wild Things Are to my own children. Sometime in high school she’d had an English class where students studied poetry for a whole semester. When she died that textbook was one of the mementoes she left that I most cherish. The book, published in 1926 by Allyn and Bacon, is filled with pre-modernist poems. I remember long passages from some I never read in school, like Field’s Little Boy Blue, or Holmes’s The Chambered Nautilus. Of course she read poems like The Raven, The Wreck of the Hesperus, The Barefoot Boy, Miniver Cheevy and dozens of others, all of which my mind sleepily remembers after half a century. I’ll never forget how excited I was when I moved to Boston and found out the Blacksmith House in Cambridge was the actual site of Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith. There on that busy Cambridge street was once a spreading chestnut tree and a forge.
I can still quote many poems by heart that my mother read, though I never memorized them in class.
And that brings me back to “I see London . . . ,” which is like music. When you are a child and it gets inside your skull, you can be easily given over to it. Just so with poems – the verbalization of them gets into some automatic portion of your brain and they become permanent.
So Hurray! For the Spoken Word movement – whether it is students writing their own poems and reciting them or students reciting the great classics of the past. The effect of the movement is the reinvigoration of poetry in the popular culture of America.