Sunday, May 1, 2005

Congress is spending a lot of hot air on the question: To filibuster or not to filibuster. The Bard, as always, said it best: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the minds men to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take aims against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing end them?”

Whatever our worthies decide to do about the filibuster, we can count on a lot of bluster. Hamlet summed up pretty well what’s rotten in the state of Congress. Would that the few senators who set their tongues to blocking judicial nominees were eloquent in understanding the issue. We no longer live in an age when poetry is handmaiden to political rhetoric. Our politicians, like most everybody else, are sparing in poetic utterance, which is too bad because at its best poetry clarifies thought. Fine poetic images crystallize ideas and encourage an appreciation of the structure of language informed with meaning. Both language and meaning are often missing in the windbaggery of Capitol Hill.

We’ve all had a lot of fun “misunderestimating” the president’s syntax and his knowledge of the ancient “Grecians”; he probably couldn’t recite much poetry, either. But he has done the country a capital service in bringing Dana Gioia, a poet, to Washington to chair the National Endowment for the Arts. Learning of my interest in poetry, the chairman called me the other day to talk about a pet project.

In a pilot program sponsored by the NEA and the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, schoolchildren are now offered participation in a poetry recitation contest. In Washington more than 4,000 students from 10 middle and high schools memorized two poems and competed first with classmates and then with students of other schools, as in a spelling bee. Ten finalists performed their poems the other day at the Folger Shakespeare Library. They would have done the Bard proud.

Stephanie Oparaugo of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, the winner of the regional finals, a young woman from Nigeria, chose two very different and difficult poems for recitation, “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats, and “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, a poem that includes lots of whimsically nonsensical sounds. A famous line of the Yeats poem is “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” which was especially significant to Stephanie because it was the title of a novel entitled “Things Fall Apart,” describing colonization in her native country. “Because I’m Nigerian,” she says, “I had to do it.” Poetry recitation contests go back to ancient Greece, when poets competed in playwriting contests. The oral tradition is most vividly recalled by Homer. The current competition energizes students, eliminating the perceived prissiness attached to contemporary poetry. One of the finalists was a high school football player.

In preparing for their recitation the students listened to an original audio CD distributed by the NEA, with James Earl Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Angela Lansbury reading dozens of poets, including Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas and Langston Hughes. Mr. Gioia sees the competition as having many goals: teaching young men and women to listen carefully to language, to fuse emotion with intellect, to take pleasure in the images that stalk the curious mind. He sees the recitation of poetry as a way to voice and deepen universal reflections on the emotions of love, loneliness, death and desire: “How something is said is as important as what is said.” Before coming to the NEA, Mr. Gioia was a businessman (vice president for marketing at General Foods) as well as a poet, and he’s hard on academic poets who know little of the world outside insulated lives on campus. Their arcane language speaks to a narrow sensibility. A famous poet today, he infamously wrote, “means someone famous only to other poets.” Prominent campus obscurities were naturally highly offended.

Poeticprovincialism means that “only poets read poetry,” developing what can be described as a subculture of substandard snobbish specialists. To update Yeats, the center (of their universe) cannot hold. Mr. Gioia wants poetry to again become “a part of American public culture.” Think Walt Whitman. The chairman once gave a talk at the National Press Club entitled “Can the National Endowment for the Arts Matter?” In his two years as chairman he’s brought the NEA a long way from the bad old days when it funded “art” intended only to outrage decency and taunt ordinary the Americans paying for it. His pilot poetry project is a powerful step in a fresh direction.

“By performing great works of literature, students can master public-speaking, build self-confidence and learn more about their literary heritage,” he says. Who knows? Poetry may even train future members of Congress. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”

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