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.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Another Grammar Rant

Sometimes small things irritate me.
Right now, I have just finished reading a very good short story. It held my interest in the plot and characters and their development but ... Several times the writer used the verb 'to lay' when he should have used 'to lie.' No great matter, you might say, people make mistakes. True enough, but this was the same mistake over again. Several times.

I admit to my own faults and quirks, but I usually catch them when I reread a raw manuscript. Before publication, an editor or proof reader should catch them. Or are line editors and proof readers extinct, wiped out by Spellcheck and the like?

The difference (with exceptions, of course. After all, this is the English language.) is that 'lay' is a transitive verb, 'lie' is intransitive. In other words, 'lay' means something is being done to something else. Action. 'Lie' refers to a passive state of being. No action. The only thing they have in common is that the simple past tense of 'lie' is 'lay' which is the present tense of the verb 'to lay.' In a small example: "I lay the book down. (Action, now.) It lay on the floor before I found it. (No action, and in the near past.)

Somewhere in my first few years of dealing with our language, I realized the difference; I've never, even in conversation to my knowledge, interchanged these verbs. In conversation the misuse doesn't seem as glaring, probably because there is greater context. But printed on the page, or on a website? Very annoying.

I tell you no lie.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Changing Times, Changing Language

One of the things that struck me last month at the Labour Day parade was how the language and terminology of work and the workers has been changing. When, as a young working man, I began to involve myself in the labour movement all the words and slogans pertaining to rights and benefits that had been most identifiably the basis of the movement since the beginning of the industrial age were still current and still had the same meanings.
But now. Imagine a workers' celebration without talk of 'us' against 'them,' nothing about 'the bosses,' no reference to striking for increased wages, better conditions, shorter hours, increased benefits. The only recognizable sloganeering is about pension rights, not so much demanding the workers' rights to a pension but crying out against the international conglomerates' ability to erode pension benefits almost at will. That's not imagination, that was the reality. Joe Hill should be raging in his grave.
But when our concept of work changes, as it does more and more, so must the language change. When work was considered as physical labour, the time spent doing so was important to a person's physical well-being. Now such activity is becoming less and less a part of our culture.
A person who spends an inordinate amount of time at his job is no longer considered a 'slave' but more likely a 'workaholic,' one who chooses to spend more time at work for whatever reason. Bosses and employers have become faceless entities without any presence against which to direct protests. And so the workers' language must change.
The real force for change and workers' protection must necessarily be one of revolution. The problem seems to be that the work force has been fragmented. There are no longer thousands of people working together in one place who can unite into a single entity. A lot of the work done for a large corporation is handled by a few persons operating machinery or computers; much of it is outsourced to small businesses or individuals under contract. The old terminology no longer applies.
A revolution that cannot gather together like-minded people in one place needs to be fuelled by language. The possibility of pamphleteering still exists but a far greater force would seem to be the newer electronic media. It has already started with petitions using e-mail and/or facebook. The continuing growth will see new terms and language.
An example of the changes in the labour movement is happening locally. The Workers' Art and Heritage Center is sponsering a project looking for new labour songs for the new labour reality. Tonight during the monthly Art Crawl (an open house of a number of art galleries in one district) one of its proponents was seen going up and down the street pulling a cart – emblematic of the old concept of work – but singing a song dealing with the more recent concept of labour.
A post-industrial society needs to express itself using not only the age-old concept of work songs but also the post industrial media.
And an information language for this information, post-industrial world.