Given the relatively small audiences for print-based poetry, reviewers are less likely to publish negative assessments. In addition, as many poets have informed me off the record, it could jeopardize one's career as a poet to speak too truthfully in an unfavorable way about various poets. That's all quite understandable. However, the absence of public, thorough critiques makes it difficult to develop an awareness of why some college students express disdain toward the sounds of some poetry.
In the majority of cases when I hear teachers and professors talking about students disliking important poets, or finding the sound of the poetry boring, the deficiency is placed on the students. They just don't understand literature, I've been told. Or, they are too influenced by popular culture. Maybe so. However, findings from a recent research project suggest other possibilities as well.
In their article "Beyond Poet Voice," researchers Marit J. MacArthur, Georgia Zellou, and Lee M. Miller sampled 100 poets -- 50 men and 50 women -- reading one of their poems. The researchers noted commonalities and differences among the poets. They also noted relationships of the poets in relation to samples of conversational speech.
The researchers found that, on average, the poets were less expressive in their readings than the sample of people in conversational speech. They also discovered that for the most part, women poets are more expressive than men poets during readings. At the same time though, women poets differed more from women in conversational speech than men poets differed from men in conversational speech.
Those findings are really worth considering if you work with large numbers of black college students.
For more than a decade now, I have taught a series of classes comprised of all black men and classes comprised of all black women. The variety of speaking styles, dynamism, volumes, paces, and other measures of expressiveness have been far more pronounced in the classes of first-year black women students. By their own descriptions, some of them talk "white," "proper," "hood," "ghetto," "real black," and "black but not too black."
As a group, my first-year black women laugh out loud much more than any other grouping of my other students. Individuals among the group will demonstrate the way other kinds of black women talk, and speakers among this group are more likely to playfully mock the ways that "white girls" and "black dudes" talk. In short, my first-year black women are more infinitely more interesting speakers than any of my other students, including my junior and senior black women students.
Could the complex and vibrant conversational speaking styles of my first-year black women students explain why they typically find formal poetry readings by prominent black women poets so unappealing? I think so. Accordingly, could the lack of major differences between men poetry readers and men in conversational speech explain why my black men students are less vocal in their displeasure with black men poets than my black women students? Perhaps.
Not surprisingly, my black women students express more fondness for spoken word artists, who tend to be younger, than for formal poets. The spoken word artists are typically more expressive than the formal poets. In some cases, spoken word artists are known to adopt conversational performance approaches, and their dramatic reading styles are ultimately more dramatic than the style often associated with academic-style "poet voice," which often characterized as sounding flat.
For the most part, the professors who are most likely to publish scholarly articles about poetry tend to work with relatively few black women students. On the other hand, the professors who work with large numbers of black women students encounter more barriers to scholarly publishing (i.e. heavy teaching loads and few resources). As a result, there's a gap in our collective knowledge on poetry.
However, if we are to fully appreciate how and why black women students respond to poetry the ways that they do, then we could do more to take into account their conversational speech patterns.
• Why some black poetry sounds boring to black students (abstract)
• A Notebook on Readers