Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Last week, we heard four-time National Poetry Slam Individual Champion Patricia Smith read her poem “34” from Blood Dazzler, her book-length meditation on Hurricane Katrina. To continue our exploration of poetry as an oral/aural art, listen to Sekou Sundiata read his poem “New American Theatre.”
Sundiata is such a gifted reader, that it is easy to miss how masterfully spoken English has been crafted into the elaborate rhythms of this poem. Many of us were taught in English classes how to scan stressed and unstressed syllables to hear the meters of traditional poetic forms. But meter is only one way to create rhythm in poetry.
A recurrent alteration in any of the acoustic qualities of human speech can be used to create rhythm. Meter, rhyme, repetition, and parallel syntax are all widely used for this purpose. Sundiata goes beyond these familiar devices. He weaves every aspect of speech into the varying rhythms of his poems: the shapes of sentences, phrases, words, and syllables, the pitches of vowels and the textures of consonants.
Listen to “New American Theatre” again. Sundiata’s use of sound is so masterful he appears to compose vowel melodies. In case you suspect this is the result of his skill as an orator, listen more closely. Say a few of his lines aloud yourself. You will quickly realize the shaping of sound is as deliberate and controlled as it is in any musical composition.
Although print versions of Sundiata’s poems are hard to find, even when encountered on the printed page the rhythms of his lines come alive in the reader’s ear. Sekou Sundiata can be heard reading with musical accompaniment on longstoryshort and The Blue Oneness of Dreams.
Return to Poetry Fridays in the weeks ahead, when we will feature video clips of readings by Taslima Nasreen, Brian Turner, Kevin Young, and others.