Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Whooping Poetry

Recently there has been some intense discussion in certain circles about the increase in Black American churches of “whooping,” the vocal technique whereby a preacher urges for an emotional response to his sermon, and its value not only as a part of communal worship but also as a means to deliver the message. Those of a rational mind-set prefer their sermon to be delivered as lecture, reasoned point by point to a determined conclusion. Others see bringing and receiving the message as involving more than the mind, and that whatever will emphasize it is valid even if not necessary.

Whooping, as practiced by black preachers, is a rhetorical device. Most agree it should not be used to present the substance of the sermon, the message. However, some of those who practice it refer to it as the “gravy;” after delivering the meat-and-potatoes you pour on the extra, the joyful element. Others see it as a method of emphasizing, impressing in the spirit what has been given to the mind and thereby involving the whole person – often with physical responses, whether by voice or body or both.

Now what has this to do with poetry? Let me explain. I believe that poetry is as much a vocal art as singing. Before general literacy, well into the twentieth century, people experienced poetry as spoken language. I see the book, the page, as a storage and retrieval system. Even when I read silently to myself, I want to fear the words sing in my own voice. And, when poetry is publicly presented on a stage, any technique of drama or rhetoric that enhances the poem is important.

On more than one occasion my delivery, my method of presentation, has been compared to that of a preacher. And that's not a bad thing. In poetry I want to involve much more than reason. I want to invoke an emotional response, even a spiritual one if you will. The greater the audience involvement is, the more the poem is poetry.

I admire the cadence structures used by black preachers to enhance their sermons. I may take a look at my own delivery of certain poems to see if such a (deliberate) stucture can work for them.

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