Essay / 28 September 2022

Knock Knock, Who’s there?

Author of the Week: Belgium

Defence of Poetry

This year again, Poëziecentrum and Vonk & Zonen have invited a lover of poetry to make it clear that the genre is alive! After Charlotte Van den Broeck, Alicja Gescinska and Tinneke Beeckman, Michael De Cock makes the Defence of poetry.

Disclaimer. Mounting a defence of poetry in Poëziekrant is like breaking a lance for techno at Tomorrowland. Superfluous, if not contradictory. You will understand that I don’t intend to do that. Moreover, you who are reading these words here and now should not be convinced of anything nor be won over to anything. You know them best, from the new generation to the old classics. From Kloos and Claus to De Coninck, from Marsman to Van Den Broeck. Poetry is not dead, and needs no defence. Even if our species is prone to negative self-perception, there are few places where the useless is safer than in human hands. As long as there are people, there will be stories and emotions, and therefore also poetry. But what will that poetry look like, and how will it present itself to you? I’ll give you three shots.

I discovered the most beautiful poem I’ve read in recent months at the last theatre festival in Avignon. About a thousand spectators read along with me. The author of ‘One song’, a poem with only a handful of words that were repeated endlessly, is Miet Warlop. The short English text, set to music by Maarten Van Cauwenberghe, was created in collaboration with author Jeroen Olyslaegers. Her performance left us spectators in a daze, aglow from adrenalin. Now you’re going to tell me that it wasn’t a poem at all, but a theatrical performance. You are mistaken. It was poetry in its purest form, there on the playground of the old, stately lycée Saint-Joseph on the Rue des Lices.
In ‘One Song’, the actors use words and punctuation in a theatrical equivalent of a synchronised athletic performance, and art itself becomes an Olympic discipline as the poem is performed live in 3D. The tempo and time signature follow the poem’s lines and stanzas. Actors, in sportswear, warm up to the endless repetition of the song, which is then repeated at different tempos for an hour until everything collapses into bits and pieces. Like Sisyphus, the performers start over and over again, only to fail even more exhausted each time. The violist stands on the lighting beam, the double bassist plays while doing sit-ups and the keyboard player has to jump up and down for an hour to reach a keyboard suspended two metres high. Warlop made her poetic performance with her brother’s suicide as the background, I read in several articles. And I can’t help but think of Anna Enquist’s collection, De tussentijd (2004), in which the loss of her daughter, who died in a biking accident, becomes tangible in the bottomless depth that gapes between the words.

Knock knock
Who’s there?
It’s your grief from the past
Not possible
For all time sake
Cause
Grief is like a rock
In your head
It’s hard it’s rough
It’s just always there
It’s salty
I can taste it on the drop
Rolling down my nose
Grief is like a rock
All since then
I heat the rock
I sand the rock
I move the block

The most beautiful classical poem that I got to know again in recent years was danced by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. At the funeral of Frie Leysen – icon and grande dame of the Belgian cultural world, founder of De Singel and the KunstenfestivaldesArts – I saw how Anne Teresa set to work with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 on the stage of the Beguinage Church in Brussels. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’… The poem is an institution. It is so well known that it adorns posters on bedroom walls. Read to oblivion more times than ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ by The Beatles has been played. Read so often that you can hardly find any poetry in it anymore, because the verses have become institutionalised platitudes. So well known that it is barely still legible, only still re-readable, the way you can re-read an old prayer. Oh yes, that’s how it went again. Recognition aesthetics and the pleasure it provides. By some miracle, it seems that there are ever more people who don’t know it yet and can therefore discover it. I’m jealous of those first-time readers. How I wish I could be one of them so I could rediscover the poem. But with each rereading I am doomed to fail again, and I have to make do with the faint echo of that first time. That too is poetry, constantly rediscovering a work, recalibrating yourself and the words by means of the life lived. Every cultural and reading experience therefore writes itself into a life trajectory.
But thanks to De Keersmaeker I got to know Sonnet 18 a second time. The first time was when I was at the Brussels conservatory, the second time when De Keersmaeker swept me off my feet and cracked the poem open afresh. How did she do that? She began by reciting the text, activated the aesthetic memory, wrote herself into a tradition and, with each verse took more words away, which she replaced with dance and movement. She put a new, equally abstract layer of meaning in the place of the previous one, which it referred to and elaborated on. By leaving bits off, she exposed more core. Shakespeare became time, space and movement. Words became energy. Never was the poem more tangible to me than here, like this, without words.

You’ve realised by now. I champion poetry that comes to life, even off the paper, because I love the word as well as the stage, and because one of the most interesting trends in the performing arts in recent years has been slam poetry. There is an entire generation of dramatic arts creators who embrace poetry, give it new momentum and bring it to new audiences.

Slam poetry is poetry conceived and composed for the stage, with the aim of being recited live – or better yet slammed – and of slapping the audience in the face with the words. The way you slam a door. Slam. It is a fairly young form of poetry, I could fool you, if it were not for the fact that it comes from the oral tradition – this way of composing poetry actually started it all. Before they were finally written down in the eight or seventh century BCE, Homer’s verses were first passed on orally for centuries, performed by rhapsodes who moved from place to place in order to recite a memorised text, accompanying themselves on a lyre. This ancient narrative form reconciles the dramatic arts with poetry, and was the forerunner of written poetry. And no, in no way is Homer slam poetry, but however you look at it, what the Greek rhapsodes did is reminiscent of what slam poets do today.

Slam poetry has quickly found its way to the large (and subsidised) theatre stages in recent years. Internationally, Amanda Gorman and Kae Tempest show promise. The latter – who excels in various literary genres – was even on the bill in Avignon this year. But slam poetry and poets of the genre are also gaining ground in our own country. Both Théâtre National and KVS, the two major theatres in the city of Brussels, have a number of slam poets as leading artists in their ensembles. From the performance Malcolm X by Junior Mthombeni, Fikry el Azzouzi and Cesar Jansens made for KVS, to The Fire will become Ashes by Pitcho Womba Konga, to the work of Lisette Ma Neza. It is no longer possible to imagine contemporary theatre and stage culture without slam poetry. It is an inclusive, multi-ethnic, often multilingual style of poetry that embraces contemporary issues and brings them the fore most readily of all the arts.

Take Lisette Ma Neza, a young slam poet, who was selected for the theatre festival this year with her performance ‘L’Europe Noire’. Ma Neza studied film at Sint-Lucas in Brussels, but is mainly known as a poet. But what exactly is the difference? For her, the distinction between a slam and a poem is not always so easy to make, she does not really see a difference between the two genres. ‘For me they are becoming more and more interwoven’, she explains to me, ‘but if you do want to see a difference… then I would definitely say that slam is more intent on telling a story, is often longer and has a tension arc, and that a poem is more an impression’. Slam is often presented in the form of a competition, with a winner at the end of the evening, so Ma Neza was once vice-champion of the world. ‘Nowadays I often yearn for something a bit slower, but it does work, such a competition’, says Ma Neza. ‘The competition aspect was invented, of course, to make it exciting. It causes every slammer to look for a voice and style completely his own, because he wants to distinguish himself from his competitors.’
People are sometimes contemptuous of slam poetry. Now and then, quibblers claim that the quality of poetry can only really be measured if the text survives in print. That is nonsense. ‘Then there are many aspects of language that you forget’, believes Ma Neza. ‘A poem, after all, is all about communication, the art of language can also be experienced orally. A stage dialogue also loses quality on paper and only really comes into its own when it’s performed. It doesn’t make drama any less of a genre. Some texts are nice to read, but don’t stand up when you perform them. Others sound better when you hear them out loud. The art of poetry cannot be captured exclusively on paper, but also not in our mouths. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.’

The detractors of slam poetry were also undoubtedly concerned when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Because a pop song is just a popular thing, and what’s the world coming to if we give a Nobel Prize for that? It’s a form of purism that I’ve never been able to understand. It is self-evident to me that Dylan’s songs register through their lyrics, and that in that way they are part of literature, even if they are never intended to be read, but to be sung and listened to.
When Dylan won the Nobel Prize, he was unreachable at first for a few months. Then he sent Patti Smith to the ceremony. That resulted in historical images that you can find on YouTube. But the best was yet to come. A few months later, Dylan still sent a speech out into the world. To a rippling piano tune, he reminisced for fifteen minutes about what inspired him as a young writer. From Buddy Holly he went to Leadbelly, over to Moby Dick wrapping up with Homer. ‘Je suis persuadée que certains des plus beaux vers de notre époque se trouvent dans les chansons de Bob Dylan’, Marguerite Yourcenar wrote in 1972.

Fifty years later it is no different, and it is also no different with the most beautiful lyrics being created today. They are often found not in collections of poems, but between the podcast and the stage, in the shabby, obscure little rooms where open mics are held and young artists come in great numbers to break open the gates of poetry.
If this is going to be a defence of anything, then let it defend the following precept: break out of the poetry book, get rid of the page, go to a slam evening and witness the birth of the poetry of tomorrow.

This Defence of Poetry was commissioned by Poëziecentrum and VONK & Zonen in the context of Poetik Bazar 2022.

Translated into English by Veerle Nimmegeers

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