Whoa, Put That Hammer Down

boy and girl beatniks

So…you like poetry?

At the poetry reading venue I’ve been going to on Sunday evenings, always very well attended, I’ve seen people do something that I think is rather cute. If they happen to like a line or section of a poem, some audience members will hold both hands up in the air and snap their fingers. It’s like a faint echo of the Beatniks. Click click, cool, man.

There are two things in that exchange that interest me regarding human nature. Why are the poets (a term I’m using loosely) on the stage reciting what they’ve written? And why do people in the audience want to say they’ve liked it?

Both kinds of performance, reading and finger snapping, are expressions of thoughts or emotions. Nothing very profound about knowing that, though this is a topic I keep coming back to. It’s compelling when you ponder what this expression means at a deep level. Let’s say a person is sitting in a chair thinking of something that affects them powerfully. One option is to do nothing that reveals the feelings.

Not a very good option, of course. Human beings aren’t like that. It would be better for the person to express the emotions, which might be as simple as facial expressions or holding the body in a particular position. Or the person might get out of the chair and lie curled up on the floor behind it. Or write a poem about those feelings and stand on a stage to read it.

The options, in fact, are practically endless: write an essay, scream and throw the chair across the room, make a movie to symbolize the feelings, talk to a friend, take a hammer and knock out all the windows in the house…

Every one of these things, from the slightest lifting of an eyebrow, involves the use of muscles, which is to say, movement of the body. As a normal part of being human, in other words, we cannot sit motionless, thinking and feeling things. We must move our bodies to symbolically express what is inside the mind. Thoughts and feelings must literally come into the world through movement, and that movement must be directed into symbolic expression. (So if you feel sad, for instance, it’s not enough that you’re moving as you brush your teeth, as that isn’t symbolic expression.)

Why are we like this? This is one of the mysteries of a human being to me, this need for expression. I’ve thought about this many times, and I have absolutely no idea, not even a theory. I see this necessity rather vividly at times at the open mic poetry readings, which can involve a great deal of therapy poetry. Those poems can generally be summarized as “You can’t oppress me anymore, as I’ve learned to respect myself, and here are the details.” The “you” in that sentence might be ex-boyfriends, parents, white society, even life in general.

If we define good art as having qualities like a fresh point of view, an entertaining and surprising twist, a vivid imagination, or a well developed ability to work with the craft, then most of the therapy poetry is pretty dismal. And yet the human being standing there on that stage is so serious and earnest sometimes that I’ve seen people either choke up or cry in trying to present their poem. Or grow a little angry.

There are various theories as to why we invented language. Maybe it was to make us more effective at group hunting, or to tell the others in the tribe where the the food is. Or maybe we invented language to be able to say “I don’t think my parents ever really understood me.”

Part of the human mystery. I guess people could go to a therapist and talk instead, but that’s expensive, so they write poetry. And in response the audience sometimes want to say how they feel. Click click, cool, man.


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