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Beats and Rhymes: The Oral Tradition

This week's poem is about the poet's role as storyteller over time immemorial. Poets have always played this role as the voice of people since the dawn of man. "In times when hardly anyone besides the clergy could read and write, Celtic bards and their equivalents in countless other cultures relied on rhyme schemes and rhythm structures, that helped link one thought to the next, to remember long accounts of history, legend and myth," writes Tyler Reeb, author and professor of journalism at Cal State Long Beach. This holds true for cultures worldwide whether it's West African Griots, 12th Century Troubadours, Buddhist monks or countless others. Geoffrey Chaucer memorized his verse and performed before large audiences.

By the time this is published, the mayor's office from the city of Los Angeles will have announced the first official poet laureate in the city's 233 year history. Hector Tobar wrote in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago, "At a time when the written word seems under threat, and when schools and libraries face funding cuts, the poet laureate will be a kind of city warrior for the art of the word." Tobar nailed it: whoever is chosen has a civic duty to be the city warrior for the art of the word.

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The poet's role has always been to serve the people. Walt Whitman went door to door selling his books of poetry. Vachel Lindsay walked across America performing his poems, he was known as "the Prairie Troubadour." The Harlem Renaissance poets particularly Langston Hughes recited poems in every venue imaginable, from rent parties to Park Avenue. Pablo Neruda read his poems before thousands in South American Stadiums. Dylan Thomas gave mythical performances of his work especially his piece, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night."

Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Kenneth Patchen were known for giving animated readings, and the same is true for the founder of City Lights Books and former San Francisco Poet Laureate, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Even Robert Frost could deliver -- his recitation from memory at JFK's inauguration is one of poetry's most celebrated moments during the 20th Century. Black Arts Poets like Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti spoke their poems for thousands at universities, bookstores and marches. Another great Black Arts poet, Sonia Sanchez is Philadelphia's Poet Laureate. Jamaican Dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka and Mikey Smith deliver spoken word poetics over dub reggae.

Needless to say poetry is now popular than ever. Due to the ever-growing field of MFA writing programs and the popularity of poetry slams and spoken word, there are more poets alive now than any time in history, according to the acclaimed critic and Language poet Ron Silliman. Popular reading series like Tongue & Groove, Literary Death Match, and Story Slam flourish not only in Los Angeles but cities internationally.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser says in an insightful Opinion piece, "Performance poetry is a turning away from the dull, a turning back toward the excitement our ancestors felt as they sat close to the fire and listened to their shaman tell stories." As 2012 closes and the speed of these times accelerates, the human voice remains consistent. The voice of the poet speaks forever.


Poetry started with the oral tradition
Before books people listened
The word was spoken first
History sung in verse
Bards, Griots, Gnostics, Troubadours,
In the beginning there was the Word..



Follow Mike "the Poet" Sonksen on Twitter: @mikethepoetla

Top: Literary Death Match with Sarah Fran Wisby. Photo by teejayfaust used under a Creative Commons license

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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