Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Patricia Smith’s reading of her poem “34” reminds us that poetry comes out of an oral tradition that predates written language by tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years.
We know the epics and sacred texts that built the foundation for all the literature that has followed were originally composed on the tongue. They were passed on, generation by generation, through the oral tradition.
It has been argued that the truest histories have been written by our poets, who capture the human costs of those momentous events that the official histories tend to abstract and glorify.
The Iliad chronicles one of the great disasters of its age: a war that raged for a decade and ended in the destruction of a once beautiful and flourishing city. In the centuries since, poets have striven to understand the catastrophes of their own times.
This is never more so than in those cases when vast human suffering seems the inexplicable result of our own folly. For Homer, it was the fall of Troy; for Patricia Smith, it is the fall of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina.
In Blood Dazzler, her book-length sequence of poems from which “34” is taken, Smith assumes the personae of countless participants in and victims of the disaster. We would like to make sense out of such an event, but we also know its survivors can never fully explain why it happened. To hear Smith read one of these poems is to enter into their unending dilemma. In writing and reading these poems, Smith pulls us directly into her struggle to understand.
Return to Poetry Fridays in the weeks ahead, when we will feature video clips of readings by Kevin Young, and others.