Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Elizabeth Alexander on poetry and speaking

In our 100th Famous Speech Friday, writer Ursula K. Leguin's commencement speech at Bryn Mawr linked poetry and the power of women's voices when they speak the truth about their experiences, and she used poetry throughout that speech. With that ringing in my ears, I was drawn to a recent On Being episode featuring Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and professor of African American studies at Yale University.

The program starts out with the premise that poetry can help a society "starved for fresh ways to talk about difficult things — for language that would elevate and embolden rather than demean and alienate." What a great way to consider poetry in your speeches, as a fresh way to talk about issues. Alexander looks at poetry as a form of truth-telling speech, in stark contrast with the political speech of today:
We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth. There is so much baloney all the time. You know, the performance of political speech, of speeches you say on the news, doesn't it often feel to you like there should be a thought bubble over it that says, you know, what I really would say if I could say it is you know, these people who I oppose, I don't like them and I don't want to work with them, because they're obstructionist, but I have to act like I want to partner with them, because that's the accepted form of discourse, but in fact, it's not really getting us anywhere. Or, you know how I think of on things like, I don't know, comedy shows when there's a little ticker tape underneath it says, "She's lying." That's how I experience sometimes that sort of speech as well.
One of my favorite moments in this interview sees Alexander speaking about a momentous bit of public speaking of her own, the preparation for her delivery of a poem at President Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009. Here, she describes the rehearsal--and how the form of language in poetry can catch the ears of even a passerby audience:
...right before the inaugural, the day before, there was a sound check and the sound guy asked me to — you know, the microphone. Oh, my goodness, just this amazing instrument, this finely calibrated, you know, kind of the Hope diamond of microphones — so he said, "OK, why don't you say some poetry" — that was his phrase, say some poetry — "so we can see how it works on the mic." And the day before, Washington was full of people. People were already coming to the inaugural and the mall was quite full with lots of folks, and it was just me up on the stage and no one was looking at me. And I recited one of my favorite poems, Gwendolyn Brooks' "Kitchenette Building," which starts out:
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray.
"Dream" makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like "rent," "feeding a wife," "satisfying a man." 

 ...It's extraordinary, beautiful, tiny, tiny sonnet. And let me tell you, hundreds of people literally stopped in their tracks to hear this unknown-to-them person recite a poem by someone unknown no doubt to most of them. And these hundreds of people, I watched them sort of gather in a darkening sort of cluster and then, when the poem was over, they clapped. In other words, they knew it was something about the form of the poem, right? 
It's a good reminder that the forms we use in rhetoric are there for a reason, to catch the ear and hold its listening closer to the speaker's words--even if we don't know the speaker's identity or the context of the speaking.

Check out the transcript and audio of this program, as well as the poetry and language resources collected at On Being. Alexander's latest collection of poetry is Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010. To learn more about poetry in speeches, read my post on using poetry in a speech to add color and connection.

(Photo from bomackison's Flickrstream)

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