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Sorrow Songs and Long Kennings: On Readings

W.E.B. DuBois

When one red building is much taller than the others, it almost demands a joke. Or a myth. If you’ve ever been to UMass Amherst, you’ve seen the very tall W.E.B. DuBois Library because it insists on being seen.

One rumor goes that when they built the library, they didn’t account for the weight of the books, so bricks popped free of the top few floors. But then one librarian angrily popped the balloon of that rumor when I brought it up. From what I remember, the documentation in the library’s elevator recommends the 21st floor as the ideal perch for seeing the whole valley.

But you have to stop looking out from your heights to find a book called The Souls of Black Folk by the library’s namesake, W.E.B. DuBois. The fourteenth chapter of this book is called “Of the Sorrow Songs,” and inside of it, DuBois writes about how his grandfather’s grandmother brought a song with her—memorized, as tangible as any stone you can bite or tattoo you can feel—across the Middle Passage, a horizontal movement, and through the familial generations, a vertical movement.

You can tell from reading the chapter that DuBois believes something is lacking in writing them down. He quotes a black woman, unnamed, talking about one such song: “It can’t be sung without a heart and a troubled sperrit.” Looking at the larger history of literary culture, especially as it intertwines with oral culture, you could also say that there are some songs that are only sung by those whose names don’t get written down.

The Last Poets

After I wrote my first column for this series a few weeks ago, the poet Scherezade Siobhan called me out on Twitter for not including any relevant mentions of African American poetry or spoken word traditions, for implying that poetry readings can only straddle “the yin yang demarcations of church readings and rock concerts,” and in an overall way for not taking into account the “history of a literary tradition designed for oral transmission.” She also challenged the idea of poetry as “private speaking,” pointing out the urgency of spoken poetry’s communal and very public role throughout history.

These criticisms are 100% valid. So I wanted to address them and do a little zooming out and zooming in to take both a broader look at the history of readings in general and a deeper look at my own privileges and blinders in what is hopefully an effort to root out some larger issues in how we discuss literary cultures, both exchanges and oppressions, and how we might work through those.

I got in touch with Siobhan over email, thanked her for the call out and the criticism, and we had a really constructive and edifying exchange. She is working on an essay of her own that we’re going to post here on Real Pants, and I’ll definitely be encouraging y’all to read that when it goes up, as Siobhan is thoughtful, thorough, well versed in literary history, and all in all much smarter and more articulate than me when it comes to these issues.

As I told Siobhan in our exchange, I think she was totally right to call me out. For being an alleged “introduction” to a series called On Readings, my initial post did a pretty glib job of taking the complexity of the subject into account. Honestly, going into the series, I think I had an overly narrow focus imagining what I should write about, trying to stick mostly to my experiences and not presume to speak to what I don’t have a good handle on. But Siobhan’s tweets have made me realize the series needs to be more open than that if it’s going to call itself “On Readings,” so I’m going to try harder to widen my lens and incorporate more critical research.

What’s important to say first is that I apologize for my omissions, and I’m going to work to do better.

“Reciting This Bilingual Poem in Schools Apparently Violates Arizona’s Absurd Ethnic Studies Law”

Toward that effort, here’s a little bit of what I’ve learned and re-learned. It’s certainly just a start, and there’s a lot more to be done. For example, we might already know about poetry’s birth in the oral tradition as an act of collective memorization. Passing things along through the tribes, either before written instrumentation or as an alternative. Records can be burned. Songs of fire can’t.

We might already know about the desire of a song, a lifted voice, to imitate grief, to conjure the moan so the feeling doesn’t go lost. Then, of course, all the techniques involved toward memory. Last time, I said you should probably memorize your poem somewhere in your body, which means the poem itself should probably include something for someone else’s body. People go up to readers after the reading and say “I stopped listening to you after your line X because I couldn’t get it out my head.” Good work. Now what do you do with the rest of your poems?

One thing I didn’t know about before doing more research was the longest kenning found in skaldic poetry. A kenning is a compound word that circumlocates a “real name,” a metaphorical re-defining. It’s important that it comes from a phrase meaning “to name after.” You get the name first, and then the name gets handed to you, and then what? Who gets to control the metaphors? When we read our poems out loud, who is going to remember our new names? The longest kenning found in skaldic poetry “occurs in Hafgerðingadrápa by Þórður Sjáreksson and reads nausta blakks hlé-mána gífrs drífu gim-slöngvir.” This means “fire-brandisher of blizzard of ogress of protection-moon of steed of boat-shed,” which is a kenning for “warrior.”

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Certainly there’s plenty of poetry that’s private speaking, but certainly it’s a big part of poetry’s job to cough into the microphone in the basement and forever change what we see when we say “warrior.” Shreya Dhital says vampire instead of politician in Nepal. Linton Kwesi Johnson elongates the syllabes of “escaping” to be more toward how long they feel.

Here’s a very short—by no means complete—sampling of resources that seem to start poking at the rich and complicated history of the contemporary poetry reading in the context of ancient oral traditions, especially as it concerns the legacy of oral culture in POC communities:

Public performance of poetry is activism, saying to save, stomping the unuttered into the uttered, as much as it’s an opportunity to open up domains of the seemingly unutterable. This is a gnarly knot in the public/private idea. Figuring out how to build spaces and strategies for vocalizing swirls of private feeling is one thing. But is it the same work that goes into trying to build spaces for collective iterations of feelings we most certainly can name: desire, anger, self-preservation?

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

One thing I think, in general, is that when we’re asked to write about something, no matter how much we think we know about it, we should never assume that the reason “we’re” writing about it is because we’re “experts.” Writing about any given thing should always be treated as an opportunity to essay that thing, to weigh and test and unpack and challenge first and foremost our own assumptions and limitations.

Certainly this beat is an opportunity to dissect/inspect and move beyond what I “already know” about “readings,” and a good place to start (both on the subject of readings and literary culture in general) is the way mainstream literary culture privileges a narrow spectrum of aesthetics based largely around middle/upper class white experiences. And what’s especially a bummer is when this privileging seeps unexamined into cultures that purport themselves to be “alternative,” as I would think we’re doing here.

It was shortsighted of my post not to mention (as Siobhan pointed out in her email) Cecile Emeke, Amber Atiya, Danez Smith, Angel Nafis, Gil Scott Heron, Saul Williams. And the same for LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Edwin Torres, J Mase III, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Jamaal May, just to name a few more great poets who are also really good at doing/presenting/making their work live.

My underlying concern in that initial post was trying to carve out an argument against the accepted academic respectable reading trope, where “performance” exists pretty flagrantly but differently than we might initially imagine it, a performance of stiff signaling of quasi-Victorian respectability or something.

J Mase III

But I don’t think I built my lighthouse big enough, as it were. It’s not my goal at all to roost up in an aesthetic corner. Rather I want to learn about what I personally don’t know, and I definitely want to share and expose techniques/traditions that people might not already know about or might feel are outside what they are “conditioned to believe they know best,” to paraphrase Siobhan’s paraphrase of Elif Shafak.

Definitely Gil Scott Heron, Saul Williams, Def Poetry Jam, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, slam poetry, spoken word—this is huge in the development of what we think of when we think of contemporary poetry readings. I actually watched a ton of Def Poetry Jam when I was in my late teens, and it was important for me. Especially because I grew up pretty poor in rural Northern California, surrounded by almond groves and meth, not much culture to speak of. But I’ve never felt like I could just gobble up those styles and regurgitate them as if there wouldn’t be a hugely problematic pool of blood in that appropriative move. I was still a hetero-ish cis white dude watching HBO in my parents’ apartment.

Cultural “exchange” is strange, and there I was in a crumbly-ass building built in 1900 to board railroad workers watching the commercialized package of something that bloomed with African American poets and groups in the 1960s—Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets—and then somehow got entered into the historical record as the invention of conspicuously white dudes like Marc Smith and Bob Holman. Nothing against them, as I don’t really know enough about them to be for or against them, but I just remember when I looked into the history of slam poetry/spoken word, it felt weird that an art form I primarily associated with people of color was somehow “started” by two white dudes.

But that’s definitely a complex knot that is worth being presented, and it speaks to something larger about the culture of poetry readings in general. Personal discomfort is never a good excuse for ignoring hard work. The larger reason I didn’t delve into that tradition in my first post because of my failure, basically, to take a historical perspective. Instead, I think I was trying to articulate a kind of loose poetics of “readings for shy/nervous people,” or a critique of dominant models of performativity, as a way of chipping at some of the icebergs of reading tropes and launching a larger argument that whatever a “reading” is, it can be much more than we currently think of it. While “readings for shy people” certainly wasn’t going to be the whole theme of the series, it felt like an interesting place to start.

Ka Vang

Which speaks to the public/private thing, where I was trying to get at a larger idea of how we inhabit language, share language, and how poetry seems to me to be largely a place where language is finally free of any “job” it has and can romp and delve and situate itself in modes of communication and exchange that are entirely strange and that hopefully reinvigorate communication itself.

Which is a semaphore on the rails of the oral tradition, definitely. My thinking about it is that we are so saturated with language/communication and even storytelling in contemporary culture, and what is poetry’s role in all that? Poetry being something that’s pretty good at adapting to what people need it for. All of this, admittedly, again, showed up in my post in a sketch-quick way that bit off more than it could chew. We did a lot of skateboarding in rural Northern California, and you always tried to a fault to make the trick look too easy.

That approach, however, definitely comes loaded with some blinders, and I see now that my “place to start” was also a very privileged and limited place to start. For example, HBO isn’t exactly cheap, which pokes a hole in my self-romanticizing. For another example, where we are inundated with language/story, it’s overwhelmingly still the monolithic white supremacist culture talking about itself as usual, and exoticizing when it does try to peek above its belly.

Pick any today, though, and you’re going to sound pretty silly if you say “Poetry today is stronger/healthier than ever.” Is poetry’s goal really strength and health? Shake any of the breaths poetry allows for, and you quickly realize that it’s all about a certain kind of survival and communication that isn’t present in other linguistic occasions. But while we might be tempted to say that—because of its general cultural marginalization—all poetry is micropoetry, all cadres of poets nursing each other in private gatherings for their trips out to the larger world, that’s not really how it works. If not “official,” officious verse culture exists. You’d have to be a pale bobblehead to think that dominant culture doesn’t always attempt to sprawl its legs on the subway cars of, um, subcultures.

damonIn Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries, Maria Damon fascinatingly stakes the territory of “micropoetries,” the poetries that manifest in contexts and audiences that “arise out of the cultural practices of subcultures or informal communities with little public acknowledgment or power.” This is a better articulation of the “privacy” I was thinking about. Micro isn’t a diminutive in Damon’s reckoning so much as a callout to questions we can’t ignore. Is our aestheticzed slumming it of “$1-tip-for-PBR” a micropoetry at work? Or is it the graffiti artist painting visual poems on manhole covers while living unemployed on SSI?

Are our smartphone Twitter aphorisms—read later after we’ve adjusted the microphone the way we saw white stand-up comics do it—somehow less corporate than the fortune cookie lines written by—actually, where do we look that up? Speaking of micropoetries, why do I know who David Ogilvy is and not Lisa Yang? What kind of poetry reading is it when we read fortunes out loud to our friends and add “in bed” to the end of them? These aren’t questions toward sluggish, navel-lashing guilt. Or exoticizing romanticization. They’re about what can we learn from who we unconsciously ignore by way of our unconscious sorting.

I see where my original post introducing this series fell short, and I will try to get better and broader and more thoughtful and inclusive in the posts to come. Because this series should feel open and inviting and complex, and I want to do the learning and work to make it that way. Please feel free to communicate any criticism or thoughts you have. Even though the brick story is cool, the librarian who corrected me was right, because now I can forget that story and learn the song story instead. There is room for all kinds of stories, and poems, and their public and private emergence.

Mike Young
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About The Author

Mike Young

Mike Young is the author of three books: Sprezzatura (2014, poems), Look! Look! Feathers (2010, stories), and We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (2010, poems). He publishes the free online/print literary magazine NOÖ Journal, runs Magic Helicopter Press, and lives online at In person, he lives in Santa Fe, NM.

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