Poetry reading lacks spirit of authors’ works

When a poem is read or delivered by an individual it should be enticing yet natural, challenging yet coherent. But most importantly a poem should be read passionately. A poet will be a poet regardless of institutionalized academia or infamy, but when a poet lacks the quintessence of language and performance, credibility comes into question.

The UH Department of Creative Writing, along with Inprint, a literary arts organization, hosted a reading Monday night of two poets with two very different backgrounds. Poets Elizabeth Alexander, professor of African-American studies at Yale University and Taha Muhammad Ali, a self-taught poet, each read excerpts of poetry from their most recently published books and delivered a performance that left many confused if not irritated.

Though Alexander’s poetry was itself inspiring, her recitation lacked enthusiasm. She read her poems as a storyteller would, with no emphatic stress on mechanics. This is unfortunate because her poems dealt with an array of beauty. From growing up black and dealing with identity to living today in an atavistic city heavy with insight, she conveyed a past that anyone in the audience could relate to – if she just knew the importance of giving a good poetry performance. It wasn’t surprising when Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali rendered a similar deliverance.

Ali, 78, recited poetry in his native language of Arabic and sitting beside him was his translator who gave such a theatrical performance one would think he was the man who wrote the poems. It was definitely strange.

The frail poet had a voice thick like yucca and even recited a poem about the travails of old age. Though the delivery of orations in classical Arabic poetry can be complex, Ali’s poetry lacked this and the tradition of using classical Arabic.

Because of his old age and dentures, many of the words Ali spoke came out crumbled. At times, he would finish an entire stanza in one breath, words coming out in rapid mumbles. But since most of the audience could not understand Arabic anyway, it was most likely unnoticed.

Ali’s translator, Peter Cole, would then take the microphone and translate the poem with salient animation. Cole had most of the poems memorized whereas Ali, the poet himself, did not. When reciting, the translator would throw his hands around the room, yell in joy and whisper in fear.

For a moment, I thought the translator was the poet and the poet was there to be exploited. But when UH professor and poet Mark Doty interviewed Ali (and the translator) at the end of the reading, Ali said something that made the reading worthwhile and humorous.

"Art is worthless unless it plants a measure of splendor in people’s hearts… and poetry is a different language, not the language that comes from the White House, but like that of Aristotle," he said.

Though the performances were not the most brilliant, the laughter of the crowd from Ali’s closing statement emerged above some, but not all, of the poets’ flaws of mechanics.

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