First Person Public

Inviting Guests: “Op Ed” offerings by itinerant authors –

Hearing Poetry’s Charm
by Leon Khachooni

Like music and dance, poetry is a temporal art, thus the magic in poetry is best experienced when heard. My great-grandmother could recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in its entirety. I’m told the performance this delicate old girl gave was so powerful, it never failed to enchant all within earshot.

In my family as I was growing up, poetry was separated from the experience of it, relegated to stories about it. The only access I had initially was to attempt to decipher how cold and cruel words on a page (my mortal enemy at the time) could bring such pleasure and satisfaction. I wanted to be enchanted too.

It was not until I encountered Greek mythology, epic poetry, the plays of Shakespeare, and the epics of Arthur and Gilgamesh in Junior High that I began to feel the living magic of language artfully rendered as poetry. The key to it all, for me, was hearing the words spoken aloud.

To this day, I view poetry as merely residing on the page, preserved in text. Until I can hear the rhythm and music of a poem moving through the atmosphere I cannot feel its charm. By sight alone I could only approximate the potential of a poem; by hearing it aloud I can experience the pleasure in the language, I am given its proof of life.

This “pleasure” is the aural effect, not easily deducible by an unaccustomed reader. It was not until I began to put the pieces together from my survey courses in Literature and Theory that I gained a new perspective.  The most profound shift came from reading the philosopher Hegel. He classified six arts, separated them into the first three, the durable: architecture, sculpture, and painting; and the last three, the temporal: dance, music, and poetry. This ordering had me perplexed. Weren’t poetry and literature durable? It wasn’t until I began to consider poetry an art that exists only in time, an ephemeral and passing experience, not an artifact, that I began to understand.

In my second semester of grad school I began attending poetry readings. At first they seemed awkward affairs, gatherings of reticent personalities uncomfortably going about the act of performance. The poets themselves seemed hesitant and reluctant at best; at their worst, by their  participation, condescending. This I could not understand, not from my perspective.

As I attended more and more readings I began to understand the immense weight of performing such intimate and intensely emotional material, alone and naked, if you will, to a room of complete strangers. And as I continued, I found many poets I consider to be cutting edge masters of the contemporary reading.

Two of my current favorites are Li-Young Lee and Chris Abani; each, for their breadth of experience and expertise as poets. Both excel at bringing their poems to an audience with unparalleled candor and grace. You can get a good taste of what it is they do on YouTube, but I strongly suggest you make the attempt to attend their readings in person. There is no substitute for experiencing a temporal art performed by its creator.

This past Thanksgiving the family watched Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. With the small children getting more and more restless, and a couple of adults needing a bathroom break, the movie was paused. Before being mentioned in the film, my mother recited William Earnest Henley’s (1849-1903) poem, Invictus, from memory. The room fell silent, including the children. When the absent adults returned, they knew they had missed something and my mom was encouraged to repeat the short poem. Hearing her speak Henley’s words aloud was more memorable than the movie and the Thanksgiving dinner combined.

About the “guest author” of this post:

Leon Khachooni is the consummate “Renaissance man” – a performer whose occupations include (but are not limited to) musical, theatrical, and literary arts. He holds a Master of Arts in English from California State University, Northridge, where he studied “thinking.”


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