Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
his soj
ourn in Northern Ireland'

Poetry slammed and defined again

Jon Kennedy  

JONAL ENTRY 1294 | JUNE 15 2013

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. . . . He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him."

— from John 14, from today's
Orthodox lectionary readings

Diary: I've wondered about poetry often over my seven-plus decades. The idea of an artful use of language to turn thoughts into poems appealed to me in my childhood so much that I tried writing simple poems when I was in third grade at Belsano school and I wrote occasional poems for my column in the Mountaineer-Herald in my teens. But I consciously put poetry on a "back burner" during my college years, after my English professors convinced me there was no money, and certainly no career, to be made in poetry. They either implied or I inferred (or a combination of the two) that only dilettantes and lazy shirkers of work do poetry. Even my poetry prof, who was making a living in the field (by teaching, not writing it), didn't say much to commend it, though he was passionate about its reading or recitation. In my latter years, I came across C.S. Lewis's frequent provocative comments about poetry, which made me think he wasn't sure whether even he knew what poetry is or what purpose it serves, and he had begun his writing career as a serious but—in commercial terms—unsuccessful, poet. (He also, however, got a few poems published year after year in London periodicals, under pseudonyms.)

But now one of my housemates here in Belfast, Ward Stothers, is a serious poet, spending hours looking for just the right word or phrase, entering poetry competitions, and planning to publish a collection of his works in the next year (he's retired on a pension from a field not related to writing, so he can't be accused of shirking hard work). Just a few years younger than I am, he gives readings at public venues, both independently and with his close friend (and a new valued friend of mine, as well), Bill McKnight. This week (including an eighth day, tomorrow) is book week in Belfast, with dozens of events promoting books and reading, including poetry. The biggest poetry event occurred last night near the Queen's University campus, a poetry slam at the Crescent Arts Center. Ward, Bill, and I all attended, with the former both entering the competition. It began at 9 p.m., possibly to discourage participation by oldtimers like Ward and me (Bill is younger enough to be excluded from this oldtimers club). And though my eyes are drooping this afternoon and my brain is slower than usual, the event was a revelation to me. Though I still can't say there's a single best definition of poetry, I am convinced that poetry can be put to some good uses that I had barely known of before, and its cultivation should be nurtured, not discouraged.

"Poetry slams" are gatherings where poets come together to read their work to anyone attending, which is mostly other poets or would-be poets and any friends they can induce to come along. The first twenty to thirty poets signing in are invited to read for three minutes; a panel of judges decides who qualifies for a second "round," which is limited to eight "semi-finalists," and the process repeats on to a third and final round of four finalists, from whom one winner is chosen. I would expect such an event to "have" to be admission-free because, well, who is going to pay to listen to people read their poems? But this one was not free; admission was four pounds sterling (about seven dollars), even for those not entering the competition, and at the end the emcee announced that its income from ticket sales was the highest of any event in the festival! Likewise, I would have strongly guessed that the prize for such a competition would "have" to be no less than £100 and an invitation to read on the BBC, because who is going to put in such great effort to write and perform such salutory work for anything less? But in fact the single prize was only a small loving cup (no bigger than a large coffee mug) on which the winner's name will be engraved (the emcee promised). And the biggest and most surprising fact I gained from the poetry slam was that as an evening of live entertainment, my seven dollar ticket was one of the best investments I ever made.

That's because the poetry slam presumed, as the emcee put it in the introduction, that poets are whole packages as writer-performers, and it was obvious last night that the largest category in the judges' checklist was performance, as in "acting" more than reading. Of the 30 to 40 three-minute "performances," I would have to allow that the best poems were generally also the best performed. But one performer, who approached the stage from the middle of the audience acting inebriated, took control once he got to the podium and delivered his lines as smoothly and persuasively as a Hollywood star—literally, he reminded me of James Dean—reciting portions of a poetic script though, alas, his poem as a piece of writing did not amount to much. The best-"acted" poems also often were among the longest, and invariably they were recited from rote rather than actually read, through presumably this was a "poetry reading," not a "poem performance."

The best poem both in its content and its delivery, and possibly the longest one in number of lines, was from a young African-American woman (I would guess only about 20 years old) who shared the maddening lot of adolescent Black women in a world that screams from endless sources what is expected of girls turning into women in our oversexed secular world, how all of those expectations literally drove her to the edge of madness, and how her mother's common-sense presentation of God's grace from the Gospel delivered her from that fate. It was moving to see what seemed to be the audience's general agreement with my assessment that this was the best presentation on the evening's unscripted program. But, alas, though the young woman advanced to the final level of competition, she had only two poems in her repertoire which, I presume, caused the judges to discount her. Instead, they gave the trophy to a woman who had a moderately good poem, though it was somewhat obscene in its language and somewhat heretical in its theology, for her first round, then descended into greater decadence in her second and third recitations. Though I thought at least several of the male poets had better poems and performances than hers, the all-male panel of judges chose the low road.

But the trophy was almost an after-thought. The night of scintillating, highly suggestive, often profound and often very humorous performances was something everyone, I'm sure—even those performing and competing, with all the tension and suspense that must have brought them—could savor and take away for further reflection, inspiration, and enlightenment.

There may be enough left to say on this topic for a sequel.

Feedback: You can comment on today's topic on the page linked here:


Feedback is always welcome.

Scripture: Jesus makes it clear that loving Him means obeying Him and doing His will. Mere profession of belief is not enough; profession must be supported by works like, first, knowing what He wants of His disciples and, second, doing it.

§     §     §

Please support my mission to Northern Ireland in your prayers. You can read my overview of this undertaking here. My residence/postal address is 227 Crumlin Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland BT14 7DY, UK. Mobile: 44 7455 980890.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy


related pages

The Nanty Glo Home Page

Previous blog:
Summer comes to paradise in County Antrim

Report on latest NTAMHS Meeting

Glotube videos



I offer my opponents a bargain: if they will stop telling lies about us, I will stop telling the truth about them.

Adlai Stevenson


The basis of our Faith is not the Bible taken by itself but the agreed affirmation of all Christendom to which we owe the Bible itself.

— C.S. Lewis

The Nanty Glo Home Page and all its departments are for and by the whole Blacklick Valley community. Your feedback and written or artistic contributions, also notification about access problems, are welcomed. Click here to reply.

Suitable letters to the Home Page will be considered for publication in the Forum departments unless they are specifically labeled "Not for Publication."

Jon Kennedy's recent book,
C.S. Lewis Themes and Threads, is available for purchase at $2.99. Purchase supports the author'
s mission to Belfast, Ireland. Click here to download it directly to your Kindle or your Kindle bookshelf on your PC or smartphone.

Search site

Enter a name or subject and press return.