Friday, July 20, 2012

Reading with Their Eyes Closed: Poets & Performance

Patricia Smith
Earlier this week, at the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature at Pennsylvania State University, I was talking to the folks about poetry and someone mentioned the visual significance of experiencing a poetry reading or performance in addition to only reading and hearing the poem. We decided to pull up a youtube video of Patricia Smith reading her popular poem "Skinhead."

Looking at the video again reminded me how often Smith, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Tyehimba Jess, and various other poets close their eyes when they are reading. The poets I have in mind do not close their eyes simply to concentrate on remembering particular lines of their poems. Instead, they close their eyes as a way of channeling and displaying intense emotions and distinct sounds.

Sonia Sanchez
In his expansive book Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Paul Berliner describes how developing musicians learn, in part, by watching others play. Beyond the sounds they hear, young jazz artists closely observe and absorb the physical movements and facial expressions of their musical models. 

When Baraka and Sanchez close their eyes, they are likely emulating jazz artists or other musicians who might go through a number of intense facial expressions as they seek to achieve distinct sounds. Smith and Jess, also draw on the visual histories of black musical performers, and given their experiences as Chicago slam poets, they likely also draw on stage performers and the conventions of spoken word--where facial expressions are as much a text as words on paper.

When some of these poets tightly close their eyes during intense segments of their poems, they give off a sense of the difficulty of what they are doing. The strained, pained looks give them and their performances more credibility among audiences and projects the idea that the performance or reading is a serious affair.

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