Monday, March 28, 2011

**Town Versus Gown: Academic and "Street" Poets**

Last week, a friend of mine was featured reading his poetry on a local radio station, along with a professor from one of the area colleges. Mike Jurkovic has no college under his belt that I'm aware of, but 25+ years of fairly technical experience at Cosmodemonic Communications. The professor's work I am aware of, but I don't know him personally. The contrast in style was striking and as most poets know, there is something of a split in the poetry community between those with schooling and those who are driven to express themselves in words without a formal education. Generally, I can see the positive attributes to both types of writing, but personally my taste does lean towards the so-called "street" poets.

            Luckily, none of the poets I know who might fit into that category actually live on the street or spend most of their time there. Their poems can often be grammatically incorrect, or the meanings of words bent or broken, depending on how much they rely on computer thesauruses. One can be critical of these flaws, or accept them as part of the creative process. I can only completely do that if I know the poet made those choices to err consciously and deliberately. I still believe in proper grammar and usage because they are elements that make the language common to all of us-- the level playing field on which we all interact.

            Academic poetry (for lack of a better term-- I see Mark Doty has recently taken exception to it, but until the lines become blurred, if ever, it will be the one I choose) has a tendency to rely too much on form, in my opinion. The lines are carefully crafted, with rhymes and rhythms perfectly assembled. More often than not, however, I find the overall effect of such poetry gutless. It rarely soars for me. There are exceptions of course, but I am speaking now of my personal experience with poets in my immediate radar. The chances that street poets take in content, metaphor and vocabulary interest me far more than the level, sanitary structures that are the rule and not the exception from the Ivory Tower.

            I think perhaps the two groups could benefit from more exchange. The street poets could only make their work stronger by nailing down the basics of grammar, spelling and usage. Then variations would be deliberate choices for effect and not accidents. The benefits to academics would be less precise, but no less valuable. The subjects that street poets write about are far more wide ranging than those of the academic. Opening up to that expanded realm of possibility can only enrich their work.
            Writing is a solitary activity. Going out to open mics and hearing other poets from anywhere is always a broadening experience, even if you don't connect, even if you don't like what they have to say or the way they say it. Reading big and small publishers and going online, where many of the little magazines are migrating to because of economics, helps to remind us why we all do this. We are trying to communicate our feelings, our thoughts and our observations. The language that we are using, whether flawed or stilted, isn't really all that different when it comes down to it. Listen beyond the words, read between the lines. Go to the streets and climb the Tower. It will be an adventure, at the very least.


R.M. Engelhardt : Poet~Writer Albany, NY said...

Great article Cheryl.
Yes, there are quite a few differences between academic poets & street poets. The main problem over the years that I've encountered being that most professors (with the exception of a few really cool ones)don't like the idea of letting their students branch out and explore the local open mics or poetry scenes. However, if the students are interested in really exploring poetry or in honestly finding their own distinct voices then they truly need to put themselves out there and into some new scenery & scenes. It's one thing to read, learn styles or to follow guidelines when reading-writing poetry. It's completely another thing however to create something from the depth of your own experience. All writers, poets should explore and perform. Academic or not. It gives them a new perspective & some new inspiration to try different things.

Ex.) Where would academic and-or street poets even be without EE Cummings or all the other experimentalists? We'd be living in the land of formalist & formal bore-dumb. Correct? ;)


MartaSzabo said...

great essay, Cheryl! so readable! You should read this on AMC or something! For real! Submit it. Bet they'd say yes.