Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Joy of Words

Thursday night I went to a poetry reading. I do not have many opportunities to do this sort of thing at home in Pennsylvania. But here in the woods of New Hampshire, interesting cultural events are found tucked away in the unlikeliest of places.

This was a reading by Donald Hall, a resident of Danbury, New Hampshire, and the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006-2007. I bought a book of his poetry when he was appointed Poet Laureate, and have read it whenever I was homesick for New Hampshire.

It was a rainy evening, but I gladly drove the forty minutes to Plymouth State University. The event drew about 150 people, many of them college students, who (I assumed from their body language) were required to attend the campus event by their English professor. For me it was a purely voluntary and fascinating evening.

There is something about the spoken word that fills me with joy – especially when voiced by one who knows how to use words well. This poet was difficult to understand. He is getting older now, and neither his voice nor hearing is very strong. I had to strain to make out the words. But in time I adjusted my hearing to his speech.

He spoke of ordinary people and things – items in an attic, baseball games, reading books on a quiet evening, making meatloaf – but the way he said them! The cadence of the words, the way he caught the inflections of the Yankee speech patterns – like Robert Frost used to do so well.

You could feel his joy at creating works of art made entirely of vibrations cast into the air. You can’t get that out of a book! When he spoke of the events of September 11, 2001 in poetic verse, the emotions of that day filled the room. No video footage can do what he did with words!

A question and answer session followed. One mother asked what advice he would give to young poets. (The aspiring poet was seated beside her.) He replied: Read and Revise. “Read the old poets,” he said, “Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Scott … especially poets of the 17th century.” He continued, “No one seems to read anything written before 1970 any more!”

Concerning writing he advised, “Revise each poem at least 200 times before you let anyone else see it. These days, people write a poem in a day and immediately distribute it to friends. Don’t do it. If you do, their voice will get confused with yours. Rewrite it again and again in solitude before anyone sees or hears it.”

The room gave him a standing ovation. The students gathered on the stage to pose for a class picture with the poet. Then the audience recessed into the lobby to purchase books and have them autographed. I asked him to sign a copy of his children’s book, “Ox Cart Man.” I will give it as a gift to our grandchild who was born in Concord as I wrote this blog in the waiting room.

I can’t wait to read it to him – Jonah Michael Davis - and hopefully fill his heart with the joy of words – an old preacher of sacred words passing on the joy of words to the next generation.
Photo of Donald Hall

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