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{Mon 17 December 2007}   Fabulous festive season poetry evening
Over the past two years, we’ve hosted several very enjoyable Shakespeare readings, with a very merry time being had by all participants (who keep coming back for more!). To do something a bit different for the festive season, we decided to hold a poetry evening instead. Despite the fact that several people had to cancel shortly beforehand due to illness or other unavoidable distractions, and that most of those who did come were severely delayed due to an accident that snarled up all the access routes to our home, the evening was a resounding success.

If you’ve ever longed to explore well-loved poems, or to discover new ones to delight in, with a receptive group, here’s a possible model that you could adapt for your own experience (the poems we shared are listed at the end of this post):

Theme

We’re a diverse bunch in terms of culture, countries of origin, languages, religion, age, etc., so “Season’s Greetings” means different things for each of us, but at this time of holidays and festivities families and friends generally come together and individuals look forward to new growth in the New Year. I therefore proposed the following theme for the evening:

To celebrate the season and who we are in it by sharing a poem that connects with a positive aspect of our own heritage

By “heritage”, I had in mind the following very wide definitions found via Google:

I was also intrigued by this definition, as I thought it might well contain the essence of poetry too:

As an example, I explained that I have English, Irish, Scottish and Lithuanian Jewish blood, and I’m connected by birth and culture to South Africa, Israel and the UK, and by my religious roots to Christianity and to Judaism, giving me quite a lot to choose from. I promised to look for a poem that really resonates with me…. and I found a lovely one, which I’ll include at the bottom of this post along with a list of the other equally wonderful ones that were shared.

Process

Reading poetry is a meditative act—we seldom “get it” on the first reading or hearing. A poem communicates on so many levels — visual (images), musical (language sounds), rhythmic (metre and rhythm), narrative (actual and implied story), content (intended and imputed meaning), etc.— and each reader or hearer is predisposed to respond first to one or other of these levels according to temperament, culture, reading habit, education, etc. A single reading thus seldom provides more than a brief and tantalising scent which we must follow by re-reading or re-hearing to truly sink our teeth into its satisfying pleasures.

So I proposed that we’d each read our chosen poem, and then direct some or all of the others in the group in a re-reading of it.
If the original poem was in a different language, and the reader could speak that language, then s/he’d read it twice, first in Japanese or Hebrew, for instance, and then in English. The English translation must be poetic, i.e. lending itself to being read as a poem, rather than simply a literal or prosaic translation.

I asked everyone to bring enough copies of their chosen poem for each person in the group. In the spirit of the festive season, I suggested that we consider each reading a gift: first, a gift from the individual to the group in the initial reading of the poem, and then a gift back to the individual from the group as we gave the poem back in the way s/he requested.

This “giving back” was the reader’s opportunity to hear their poem read by one or more of the others in a sonorous voice, or a soft one, or in a sexy foreign accent, or by a chorus, or in counterpoint, as the group used the voices, accents, tone, attitudes or pace requested for each line or stanza. I explained that this could range from simply asking one person to read the entire poem, to involving the whole group by using them as a chorus, or alternating male and female voices, or British and foreign accents, or asking each person to read a different line in turn, or asking some to hum or drum in the background, etc.

As it turned out, we didn’t do anything too exotic, as most people chose simply to request a reading by one voice, or a few different voices, one for each stanza or line, but there were a few sung versions too, including one wonderful spontaneous rendition of a prayer-like poem as a gospel song, and finishing up with a hearty singalong of all the verses of Auld Lang Syne — a poem which is simultaneously one of the best-known (in terms of its global reach) and one of the least well-known (in terms of its actual words) songs in the world.

Approach

Most of the people who come to our literary events are neither Shakespeare nor poetry buffs. However, we don’t allow spectators. Everyone participates, so that no one is ever in an exclusively “observing” role (which may be felt by the others as the role of critic). The ethos is experiential rather than analytical, with space given to comments by anyone on any aspect of any poem that interests them, but with more emphasis on the individual’s response than on academic analysis. My view is that critical training and a knowledge of poetic tools are very valuable, but that they should enhance and inform the individual’s response to the poem, because the individual already has an instinctive response to the poem before the analytical mind is brought to bear on it. If this is ignored, poetry’s vital connection to the heart is cut off and the poem loses its power for that person.

After so much Shakespearean poetry (because, of course, all the plays are poetry), I thought that a poetry evening would be a lighter, simpler event where we’d have a bit more time to chat without the pressure, however enjoyable, of getting through an entire play in the evening. Well, it was simpler for us as hosts, especially because I didn’t spend the usual number of hours on part allocations, but I was surprised at the end of the evening when some people seemed amazed that they had enjoyed it so much, saying that they had been really nervous about it. We discussed the anxiety about “performance” and getting it “right” (both in rendering and in interpreting), that is the appalling legacy of poor poetry teaching at school. I remembered the students I tutored at university who seemed to walk into the seminar room primed with fear and/or loathing of the genre before they even saw the poem of the day. I mentioned that I had just last week met a man who had told me that he didn’t like poetry as he’d had to learn hundreds of lines of poetry as punishment, and one of our group immediately concurred as he had had the same experience. Personally, I think that this is a literary crime that is almost unforgivable—to rob a child and the adult s/he will become of the instinctive, natural joy of poetic experience by burning into their young minds an association between poetry and punishment!

I hope that our occasional poetry evenings will go some way to healing these wounds and freeing people to reclaim poetry as their rightful inheritance—an opportunity for emotional identification, aesthetic pleasure, quieting of the mind, raising passionate spirits or, simply, for joy.

Catering

In celebration of the season, we greeted everyone with mulled wine and hot mince pies as they arrived shivering from their respective journeys, but apart from that we kept it simple so that no one had to spend time in the kitchen throughout the evening. We simply had a gorgeous spread of cheeses, pickles, crudités, hummus, aubergine salad, patés, breads, biscuits, cherries, etc. that was available buffet-style, along with a drinks table, throughout the evening, as we normally do for the Shakespeare readings. We did take a short break for an official “dinner” slot as well, but in general people nibbled and sipped throughout the evening and the poems were sufficiently rich that the occasional crunching of a carrot-stick disturbed no one.

The poems

The following are the poems that were shared. Each was a unique and yet appropriate response to the theme and I would love to give them all in full, but I don’t have time to research the provenance of each for copyright purposes, so I’ll just give links where I can find them, and provide the texts of those that are probably in the public domain. Please let me know if you have any alternative information about copyright for any of these.



{Fri 14 December 2007}   Take me under your wing
Here’s another translation from the Hebrew of another poem shared at our recent poetry evening:

Take me under your wing

Take me under your wing,
Be to me a mother and a sister,
Let your breast shelter my head,
Be a nest for my lonely prayers.

In the merciful time, at twilight,
Bend your head and I’ll tell the secret of my torments:
They say there is youth in the world –
Where is my youth?

And another secret I will confess:
My soul has been seared by a flame;
They say there is love in the world –
What is love?

The stars deceived me,
There was a dream – but it too has passed;
Now I have nothing in the world –
I have not a thing.

Take me under your wing,
Be to me a mother and a sister,
Let your breast shelter my head,
Be a nest for my lonely prayers.

(1905)
Haim Nachman Bialik (9 Jan 1873–4 Jul 1934)
Translated by Eyal Azulay from the original Hebrew version



{Fri 14 December 2007}   Pine tree
Here’s a translation of one of the poems shared during our recent poetry evening.

Pine tree

Here I will never hear the cuckoo’s cry.
Here the tree will not wear a snowy turban,
But in the shade of these pines
My whole childhood is revived.

The rustling of the needles has been and gone;
I will call “Homeland” to a snowy wilderness,
To the greenish ice enclosing a mountain stream,
To the lyrics of a song in a foreign land.

I remember those snow-capped mountains
And a song on F.M.93
Oh my darling, I have grown with you
But my roots… on both sides of the sea.

Perhaps only the migrating birds can know,
When they’re suspended between earth and heaven,
This pain of the two homelands.

With you I have been planted twice.
With you I have grown, pines.
And my roots are in two different landscapes.

Lyrics: Leah Goldberg (1911 – 1970)
Music and middle verse in English: Achinoam Nini (Noa), September 1993
Translated by Eyal Azulay from the original Hebrew version



et cetera