Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
In “The Shout,” Simon Armitage tells the story of a grade-school science experiment where he and another boy were challenged to “measure the size of the human voice.” It could be argued that all poets face this challenge every time they attempt to compose a poem.
Describing the improvised experiment’s ultimate failure, Armitage says, “It’s at that point where the experiment breaks down that I try and get the poetry to rush in and fill the gap.”
Armitage has spent his adult life trying to “get the poetry to rush in and fill the gap.” It is, apparently, only through writing “The Shout” that he can approach the memory of his lost schoolmate. Even with all its humor, “The Christening” journeys through some complex and troubling notions before it reaches that closing line, “stuff comes blurting out.”
Poetry begins where the human voice, where common speech, break down. In “The Music of Poetry,” T. S. Eliot wrote that poetry should strike the reader or listener as “how I should talk if I could talk poetry.”
But of course, when we have the most important things to say, we discover we cannot say exactly what we mean. Maybe this is why poetry and all the arts emerged.
In times of great ecstasy or distress, syntax shatters. Our speech becomes highly repetitious and rhythmic. Where speech fails us, poetry begins. It could be that laughter and weeping, which are also highly rhythmic and repetitious, have had as direct an influence on the rhythmic shape of poetry as any of our notions about prosody.
Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Patricia Smith, Robin Robertson, and others.