The Body Language of Poetry
By Djelloul Marbrook
Don’t gesticulate with your hands or make faces when speaking, the teachers at my British boarding school told me. It’s vulgar. I’m sure that this enjoinder at such an impressionable age imbued my poems with reticence and austerity.
But poetry has a body language. The poet’s way of breathing supplies oxygen to the body and to the poem. The poet’s way of walking and talking is inherent in the poem. I knew a poet who walked like the prow of a ship cutting through waves, the bone in its teeth, as sailors say, and that was how her poems walked and talked.
The body language of a poem is also shaped by the script used in its writing. If it was first written by the poet’s hand, the stops and starts, the way I’s are dotted and t’s crossed, lives in the poem. If the poem was first typed, the typographical font chosen—Courier, Times Roman, Helvetica—has a hand in making the poem. If the poem was voice-recorded, the background sounds, the poet’s breathing, the tone of voice, are all resurrected in the poem.
A poem will be tall or squat or square or wavy or angular, according to its initial look. This is why the designer of a book is essential to its success in conveying the spirit of the poet—an endangered concept in this time of print on demand.
A poem may be said to have a tone, a melody, a choreography, an orchestration. As the poem itself may employ metaphor, so these metaphors take part in its deliverance as an artwork.
There are poems that jolt, that proceed in starts and stops, that withdraw, that keep falling silent, that shout, that dance. Almost any metaphor of communication may be applied to a poem.
But body language is the metaphor I want to address. I think it fair to say that on the whole British poetry is less demonstrative than American poetry, and that may well derive from the British idea that it is vulgar to gesture to make a point.
British and American cultures have both been challenged and enriched by floods of immigration, often from cultures where gesturing while talking is more common. Poets raised in a British boarding school are inevitably influenced.
When I left that school and entered a Manhattan milieu of Sicilian and Jewish gestures I was enthralled. Sicilians could say shut up without a sound, Jews could make me roll on the floor laughing with a facial expression. It was heavenly.
My Prussian grandmother when she first heard Adolph Hitler on a Philco cathedral radio exclaimed, He’s not German! She detected his Austrian accent. Not given to gesturing herself, she explained that he was talking through his nose. Oh, I said, as if I understood.
But poetry talks through its body parts.
If a poet chooses a line with an extraordinary number of vowels the line sounds distinctly different from a line with a high consonant count. The latter will sound more guttural, more given to end stops, chunkier, if you will, and the poet will have to handle line breaks quite differently from a vowel-rich line.
The presence of a large number of o’s or e’s or I’s will all affect the musicality and affect of the poem. It might be said that consonants are the bones and vowels the flesh of a poem. It might be said their interaction is the poem’s musculature.
But all of this can be defeated by a poor choice of body type, type size and the relationship of title typography to text. All too many poetry books today run roughshod over these delicacies. It is not the designer’s business to rewrite the poem: it is the designer’s business to celebrate the poem.
The number of books and websites that offend this principle is legion.
For example, if you set Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” in Times Roman or Helvetica you succeed only in showing that you didn’t appreciate the soaring, rhapsodic poem. If you set any of Denise Levertov’s poetry in squat Arial you show that one poet might as well be another to you. You have broken the body language.
Poems pound, stammer, whine, sing, take wing. Hart Crane’s voice is often the rare counter-tenor’s. Charles Bukowski’s is often the whiskey voice of a longshoreman. William Carlos Williams often sounds like a much-loved uncle conversing with, not talking to, a child. And in any case the vibratory apparatus of the poem is distinct and different.
You can profile a poem as you would profile a person. You know it even if it is walking down the street with its back turned to you. Are its shoulders hunched? Do its feet kick out ahead? Do the arms swing? Is it noticing its environs? Does it care?
The Supreme Court in its tawdry servitude to corporate dominance has declared the corporation a person in spite of a consensus that it is patently an absurd idea. It would have been on firmer ground to have declared the poem a person, the problem being that most poems suffer, whether gloriously or as failures, from multiple personality disorder. They are Genghis Khan one moment and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe the next.
That is because the poem, for all its characteristic body language, is fey, a changeling. And being so, no body type, no printer’s font, perfectly fits. The great poem escapes itself, like fume from an alembic. It hangs around to haunt, but it cannot be put back into the bottle.
Emily Dickinson’s poems are a challenge in this respect. Her frequent use of the dash invites all sorts of flights of fancy—words made to walk the plank, for example. Her characteristic terseness and habit of stopping when you expected her to go on almost assure us of knowing her personal body language. You can imagine there had been a hush around her.
How then to instill a hush in a poem? Will it lean away from the Anglo-Saxon and towards the Latinate Norman influence on English? Perhaps. But it might just as well lean the other way. It depends on what the poet can carry off. There are short men who live tall, and tall men who live short.
The poet may have in mind the body language of someone else, someone loved or hated. The poem will be made as the drawing is drawn. Someone, something is in mind. And the appropriate body language must be found, and, with luck, not savaged by its typesetting.
The appearance of a poem on a page is a kind of celebration of its body language. In language poets and concrete poetry it is crucial, and in all cases it is never incidental. It dances with the eye. The mind second-guesses it, and it second-guesses the mind in a flirtation. The choice of paper, the size and format of the page—everything is essential to its success.
This is an issue that the publishers of print-on-demand poetry must address. They use print on demand because of its economies, but it can brutalize the exquisite economies inherent in poetry. In a certain way, now that electronic formatting has advanced, the e-book of poems is superior to the print-on-demand book, because it can better address the demands of the poem.
Delivering poetry to the page is not the same as delivery of poetry to the air. The poet has had a certain voice, a certain sound, a certain demeanor from the start. It might be declaimed, which is to say given with rhetorical panache, or it might be recited, which is to say the energy required to fetch it from memory is present in the sound. It might be sung.
The way a poet delivers a poem may—or may not—reveal the poem when it come to mind. If the delivery is embellished, as is often the case at readings and slams, then the poem may come to us in disguise, and we sit in the audience wishing we could see it. There is a certain vogue for singsong delivery of a poem. I find it an annoying pose, a speaker’s attempt to divert us from the poem’s natural body language.
For this reason, and at cost to my late-blooming career, I eschew readings and despise slams. My idea of reading well is to disclose the music and its ballet with thought as the poem took shape, to recall its moment. Perhaps the poem will set up a hum in the room, the kind of hum to which applause would be an offense. Such is my low key.
Other poets, many great poets, are high-key poets. Others are like mathematicians at their chalkboards or like great orchestrators, their batons in the air. Some are architects or carpenters, joiners.
But always there is an identifiable body language that follows the choreography of the person’s history, the sum total of the person’s experiences. That body language has a look, a brush with passersby, a manner of getting from one place to another. It may fill a room, taking more space than allotted, or it may take up less and less space until, like a good dervish, it vanishes.
[Originally published by Vox Populi, reprinted here by permission of the author.]
About Djelloul Marbrook, Writing for Peace Adviser
Djelloul Marbrook is the author of three poetry books, Far from Algiers (2008, Kent State University Press, winner of the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry), Brushstrokes and Glances (2010, Deerbrook Editions), and Brash Ice (forthcoming September 2014, Leaky Boot Press, UK). His poems have been published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Taos Poetry Journal, Orbis (UK), From the Fishouse, Oberon, The Same, Reed, Fledgling Rag, Poets Against the War, Poemeleon, Van Gogh’s Ear Anthology, Atticus Review, Deep Water Literary Journal, and Daylight Burglary, among others. He is also the author of five books of fiction: Mean Bastards Making Nice (2014, Leaky Boot Press, UK), Guest Boy (2012, Mira Publishing House CLC, Leeds, UK), Saraceno (2012, Bliss Plot Press, NY), Artemisia’s Wolf (2011, Prakash Books, India), and Alice Miller’s Room (1999, OnlineOriginals.com, UK). He won the 2008 Literal Latté fiction prize for “Artists Hill” (http://www.literal-latte.com/2008/11/artists-hill/), an excerpt from Crowds of One, Book 2 in the Guest Boy trilogy, forthcoming in 2015 from Mira). His short fiction publishers include Literal Latté, Orbis (UK), Breakfast All Day (UK), Prima Materia (NY) and Potomac Review (MD). He serves on Four Quarters Magazine’s poetry peer review board and maintains a lively Facebook and Twitter presence. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley with his wife Marilyn.
Experience Djelloul’s fascinating book videos here.
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