Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Poetry is constantly evolving

One of the lasting benefits to my having volunteered producing a newsletter for the Lake County Arts Council is the periodic bulletin I get from the California Arts Council. Of particular interest to me is arts coverage in the media.

The most recent bulletin included a link to a column with the provocative headline, "NEA initiative debauches the educational value of verse." The author, Michael Knox Beran, criticizes the selection of poems from which students must choose when memorizing verses for the Poetry Out Loud competition. Beran's objections seem to stem from his belief that the poems are too new, that they lack sophistication and that "[c]onsiderations of sex and race have evidently weighed heavily."

Beran's column appeared in the Autumn 2010 edition of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. The California Arts Council link is to an adaptation of the article that was published by the Washington Examiner, http://washingtonexaminer.com.

The subject was of interest to me because I've attended Lake County's recitation contest for Poetry Out Loud. I would have loved to have had an opportunity like this when I went to school.

I think that to a degree, as with so many of us, personal preference may lie at the heart of Beran's objections to Poetry Out Loud. He, quite simply, prefers some types of poetry and respects certain poets who are recognized as being part of a literary canon.

I do not feel qualified to say that some poems are more sophisticated than others -- and I am unprepared to attribute an agenda to the selection of the poems, since I lack familiarity with how and by whom they were chosen. But I would like to argue in favor of modern poetry in the Poetry Out Loud competition.

The continual infusion of newer poets' work captures a sense of poetry as an artistic medium that is practiced and evolves today.

Beran decries the influence of hip-hop and slam poetry upon Poetry Out Loud but he fails to mention theater, which is just as "avowedly" influential and is continually evolving.

One of the aspects that most delights me when viewing Lamplighters theatrical productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas is the way in which modern references make their way into the performances -- whether it's added references to songs in The Mikado, like "I've Got a Little List," or the "Mission Accomplished" banner displayed during "HMS Pinafore." References like these continue in the spirit of the original librettos, which included references that were topical to the day.

Looking further back, William Shakespeare wrote plays with situations that were familiar to his audiences.

Bill Cain's "Equivocation," which enjoyed its world premiere in 2009 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, depicts Shakespeare commissioned to write a "history" of the failed Gunpowder Plot. The story of how the commission takes shape offers parallels to questions that people have asked surrounding theories about 9/11. The finished commission, by the way, is a recognizable play in the Shakespearean canon.

Much of theater is propagandistic and so too is poetry. "The Ocean's Love to Cynthia," written by Sir Walter Raleigh, was a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I. It is surely every bit as propogandistic as the feared anti-war sentiments that prompted then-First Lady Laura Bush to cancel a poetry symposium at the White House in 2003. Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" stepped up to fill the void by inviting Def Poetry Jam poets to perform on her show.

The only difference is that Raleigh was flattering the establishment while the Def Poetry Jam poets were critical. Real Audio stream and MP3 download are available online at www.democracynow.org/2003/2/7/first_lady_laura_bush_cancels_poetry.

I think that, given the variety of selections available in Poetry Out Loud, whatever faults Beran finds in poems that were written by modern poets, can be equally applicable to poems written before the 20th Century. Taken together, the online and print anthologies offer high school students a comprehensive insight into the ever-changing discipline of poetry.

Michele Krueger is taking the lead to bring Poetry Out Loud to the schools of  Lake County. For more information, contact Krueger at michelekr@mchsi.com. For more information about Poetry Out Loud, visit http://poetryoutloud.org/.

Published Feb. 15, 2011 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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