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Chapter 8 Poetry ! A good poem reaches us on several different levels. It feeds our senses, stirs our emotions, and fires our imagination. It makes us see, hear, feel, and think at the same time. The total effect of a poem, therefore, is a special union of technique and substance, of artful form and meaning. APPRECIATING LITERATURE (1989) LONG BEFORE the fourth century B.C.E., when Aristotle attempted his systematic analysis of literary genres in the Poetics, listeners and readers recognized the power of poetry to tantalize and intrigue. Over the millennia, poets have been viewed as prophets, imaginative geniuses, seers, and subversives—so powerful that Plato banned them and their lies from the ideal state described in his Republic. Poetry has traditionally been considered a higher art form than the novel, which is an upstart genre, relatively speaking; even during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the novel was thriving , the general respect and attention lavished on poetry and poets far exceeded that accorded to writers of prose fiction. Through most of the twentieth century, however, popular interest in the genre diminished, and it became almost a coterie activity. 147 975 Gup DAL Chap 08 7/17/00 7:47 PM Page 147 While poetry’s star has seemed to wane in mainstream culture, the art form has fascinated and often baffled Deaf Americans introduced to it at an early age. In elementary and high school many of them have gravitated toward haiku, imagist poetry, and the works of those poets, such as Robert Frost, whose seemingly plain and straightforward writing captures a quality of the oral vernacular. Many, intrigued by this much-vaunted as well as much-beleaguered form, have tried their own hand at it; a number have produced some respectable specimens, as the works of Laura Searing and Rex Lowman demonstrate.1 It did not take long for their interest to cross over into ASL, where modern poetics and vernacular principles have combined in contemporary “ASL poetry.” It is this ASL poetry that introduced the world to “ASL literature,” captured the attention of a fair number of mainstream poetry critics in the 1980s, and found its way onto videotape in the early 1990s. Especially noteworthy is a 1990 videotape series, Poetry in Motion: Original Works in ASL. Each of its three videotapes features a single poet: Clayton Valli, Patrick Graybill, and Debbie Rennie , respectively.2 In this sampling, we can see how ASL poetry intermingles aesthetic principles and rhetorical practices from two very different traditions: Western literature (the written), on the one hand, and ASL rhetoric (the “oral”), on the other. Composing a work to orally narrate to a live audience is quite different from composing a written or videotaped narrative. These two rhetorical traditions have different principles and functions. The older oral rhetorical tradition echoes in even the new ASL poetry; indeed, it shares equal billing with the written tradition in Poetry in Motion. The Development of Western Poetry As we saw in chapter 2, authorities on oral literature have stressed that before the spread of literacy beyond a small minority of the population and before the printing press was invented, spoken or oral forms were dominant in the West.3 These oral forms varied from region to region, and only the most general claims can be made about their characteristics. It is difficult to distinguish oral poetry from other narrative forms—if those other (prose) forms 148 Poetry 975 Gup DAL Chap 08 7/17/00 7:47 PM Page 148 even existed. Indeed, the narrative of the past may actually have been a kind of oral poetry, although it was not either prose narrative or poetry in the modern sense. Because there was likely little distinction then between oral narrative and oral poetry, the combination of the two might be termed dramatic poetry. Lois Bragg has pointed out that the Scandinavian eddic poems, which are narratives about mythological figures, appear to have been dramatic poetry that functioned as a kind of sacred liturgy.4 Dramatic poetry is structured performance unlike either the poetry or prose (which are dependent on the written page) with which we are familiar. The oral performer had to compose and render his or her material without the aid of pen and paper or recording equipment. Bruce Rosenberg and other researchers studying the effects of these constraints on the resulting work have found that much oral literature was heavily structured, or patterned, for ease of composition and recall...


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