Friday, January 13, 2006

Poetry and (Silence)

One of the really challenging things about hearing that poem read (and it was a poem that has to be heard, I think), was that many people (me included) found themselves laughing at the difficulty of pronunciation. Of course, that was the point of the poem, so she in a sense was giving people permission to laugh. She was doing what many of the best artists do, which is to find humor in what must have been a horrible experience. But it also tended to make the listeners (me at least) uncomfortable when we found ourselves laughing. I'm sure that was part of the point, too. The tension between "ha ha that is funny"/"that is not funny at all, I shouldn't be laughing" is what made the poem so deep.

Hearing her read reminded me of a character in a book called Hyperion by the author Dan Simmons, who is a serious poet who also writes sci-fi. The character, whose name I have forgotten because I read the book over 10 years ago, was a rich, dilettante would-be poet who got on a starship and went into deep-freeze to travel across the stars. Because the deep-freeze malfunctioned, he had brain damage and lost all his knowledge of language except for a few dirty words: "shit", "piss", "fuck", etc. He also was dumped in a miserable refugee camp, which he barely survived. In this situation, he was forced to reconstruct all his language from scratch, and in this way became the greatest poet in the known universe. Obviously, this is not like Norma, who was a great poet before her stroke. But it nevertheless made you think of what it would be like as a "word person" to suddenly have to do without words.

The idea of losing all language and starting over seems very appealing to a poet (though certainly not worth going through what Norma experienced!). It seems like you would be forced to throw out all the unnecessary bullshit ornaments we use to decorate our language, and focus on exactly what you mean - which is pretty much what poetry is supposed to be. Not having gone through it, though, I don't know if it really works that way.

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