Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: The Verse of It

A haiku battle and an embarrassment of poetic riches.

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

There's something unavoidably silly about a haiku battle. It's like lobbing pinecone hand grenades, like playing McNugget dodgeball.

Too often, a haiku is a tight little poetic nothing, a moment of faux profundity, nicely enclosed in its syllabic cage but capable of nary a bite. Then again, in capable hands (witness Basho, a master of the form so deft he may as well own it), a haiku can be devastatingly good, and a haiku battle might be as full of snappy cleverness as a hip-hop MC throwdown.

Just before this issue hit stands (but, unfortunately, after press time), a haiku battle went down in Pittsfield. Short poems got spat, and someone went down in 17-syllabic ignominy. It's a good bet that the event (part of the many events that make up the Word by Word Fest out Pittsfield way) capitalized on the simultaneous silliness and grand potential of using such an unusual weapon.

The appearance of such an event in the calendar isn't uncommon—though a haiku-specific battle appears to be a first, poetry "slams" and "performance poetry" are relatively frequent. For me, these wordy events bring up all sorts of questions as an arts critic. That's because I tend not to like the loose and preachy generalities those forms often deliver. As a versifier myself, I've set my flag firmly on the ground of a literary camp that prizes a different approach.

My likes and predilections tend toward the "academic," toward poets like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson and W.S. Merwin, among many others. As for poets of a contemporary local flavor (and omitting my own former professors), I find few poets with talents equal to those of Easthampton native Thomas Lux, a clear-voiced purveyor of odd, often funny poetic worlds.

Likes and dislikes, though, are of limited usefulness in arts criticism. One man's dreck is another's Shakespeare. And the point for readers and listeners ought to be enjoyment, no matter what some critic thinks. (Still—you ought to check out that Lux guy.)

It seems wise to have a "live and let live" approach to poetry in a Valley with such an embarrassment of literary riches. Even among Northampton's current and former poet laureates, you'll find some quite different schools of writing. Leslea Newman's latest volume, October Mourning, takes on the hate-crime killing of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, in the '90s. Its poems are straightforward explorations and imaginations based on the real events, often presented as odes to well-known poems—several takes on Williams' "This Is Just To Say" appear. The book is akin to a set of dramatic readings.

Former laureate Martin Espada often uses poetry as a vehicle for statements of political belief. In the work of Lenelle Moise, issues of identity and geography unspool in Haitian rhythms.

None of them goes with much frequency to the well of surrealism and language play that my own academic leanings and innate fondness for the absurd predispose me toward.

And, at the end of the day, so what?

The best possible news about poetry slams and political statements in verse is that they point to an indisputable truth: enough people are out there listening to poetry that the genre is far from the intensive care unit.

It's sometimes hard to believe that's true—ask most people for the name of a contemporary poet, and you might, here and there, elicit a "Maya Angelou" response, at best. Outside of inaugurations and greeting cards, poetry isn't commonplace. It seems that only those who write poetry read the stuff, although, with the number of people circulating poems to magazines and contests, those who write it must be legion (the Poetry Foundation's recent Emily Dickinson first book award for poets over 40 garnered some 1,100 entrants). Most of the time poets read journals and fume about who got a poem in when they didn't, but still: they read it. By, apparently, the thousands.

I may not be a fan of slam poetry, of overtly political poetry or self-confessional poetry. But I am a very big fan of all those forms circulating, gaining vitality in the reading and writing. I am all in favor of whatever keeps poetry from going away. There ought to be room for all kinds.

Maybe even haiku.

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