Knock Knock, Who’s there?

This year again, Poëziecentrum and Vonk & Zonen invited a lover of poetry to make it clear that the genre is alive! After Charlotte Van den Broeck, Alicja Gescinska and Tinneke Beeckman, Michael De Cock makes the Defence for poetry.

© Emma Vanhille

Disclaimer. Making a defence for poetry in Poëziekrant is like breaking a lance for techno at Tomorrowland. Superfluous, if not contradictory. You will understand that I don’t dare to do that. Moreover, you, who are reading these words here and now, should not be convinced of anything nor be won over to anything. You know them best, from the new generation to the old classics. From Kloos about Claus to De Coninck, from Marsman to Van Den Broeck. Poetry is not dead, and needs no defence. Even if perception is sometimes against our species, there are few places where the useless is safer than in human hands. A finding that proves yet again that ‘every disadvantage has got its advantage’, as the famous Dutch football player Johan Cruijff once said. As long as there are people, there will be stories and emotion, and thus there will also be poetry. I’m pretty confident about that. So. That’s clear. But what will that poetry look like, and how will it present itself to you? That’s another question. I’ll give you three shots.

I discovered the most beautiful poem I’ve read in recent months at the last theatre festival in Avignon. About a thousand spectators read along with me. The author of ‘One song’, a poem with only a handful of words that were repeated endlessly, is Miet Warlop. The short English text, set to music by Maarten Van Cauwenberghe, was created in collaboration with author Jeroen Olyslaegers. Her performance left us spectators orphaned, full of adrenaline with a warm, indefinable glow. Now you’re going to tell me that it wasn’t a poem at all, but a theatrical performance. You are mistaken. It was poetry in its purest form, there on the playground of the old, stately lycée Saint-Joseph on the Rue des Lices.

In ‘One Song’, the actors are words and punctuation in a theatrical, concerted athletics competition. Sport is the metaphor and art becomes an Olympic discipline in a poem performed live in 3D. The time indicates the poem’s lines and stanzas. Actors, in sportswear, warm up to the endless repetition of a song, which is then repeated at different tempos for an hour until everything collapses into bits and pieces. Like Sisyphus, the performers start again and again, only to fail even more exhausted. The violist stands on the beam, the double bassist plays while doing sit-ups, and the keyboard player has to jump up and down for an hour to reach a keyboard suspended two metres high. Warlop made her poetic performance with her brother’s suicide as the background, I read in several articles. And I can’t help but think of that mighty collection by Anna Enquist, De tussentijd (2004), in which the loss of her daughter, who died in a blind spot accident on her bicycle, becomes tangible in the poignant, bottomless depth that gapes between the words. 
Knock knock
Who’s there?
It’s your grief from the past
Not possible
For all time sake
Grief is like a rock
In your head
It’s hard it’s rough
It’s just always there
It’s salty
I can taste it on the drop
Rolling down my nose
Grief is like a rock
All since then
I heat the rock
I sand the rock
I move the block
The most beautiful classical poem that I got to know again in recent years was danced by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Again death is not far away. At the funeral of Frie Leysen – icon and grande dame of the Belgian cultural world, founder of De Singel and the KunstenfestivaldesArts – I saw how Anne Teresa set to work with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 on the stage of the Beguinage Church in Brussels. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’… The poem is an institution. So well known that it adorns posters on bedroom walls. Read to oblivion more often than ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ by The Beatles is played. Read so often that you can hardly find any of it anymore, because the verses have virtually become institutionalised platitudes. So well known that it is barely still legible, only still re-readable, the way you can re-read an old prayer. Oh yes, that’s how it went again. Recognition aesthetics and the associated pleasure which that provides. All in all, it can be called a miracle that there are ever more people who don’t know it yet and can therefore discover it. I’m secretly jealous of those first-time readers. How I wish I could be one of them so I could rediscover the poem. But with each rereading I am doomed to fail again, and I have to make do with the faint echo of that first time. That too is poetry, constantly rediscovering a work, recalibrating yourself and the words by means of the life lived. Every cultural and reading experience therefore writes itself into a life trajectory. 

But thanks to De Keersmaeker I get to know Sonnet 18 a second time. The first time was when I was at the Brussels conservatory, the second time when De Keersmaeker blew me off my feet with it and, perhaps even for the first time, cracked the poem open afresh. How she did that? She began by reciting the text, activated the aesthetic memory, wrote herself into a tradition and, with each verse took more words away, which she replaced with dance and movement. She put a new, equally abstract layer of meaning in the place of an old one. The second referred to the first and elaborated on it. By leaving off, she presented more core. A bit like children do in the Dutch song ‘We stegen met een zucht’, in English: ‘We soared with a sigh, up into the sky… Long live the zeppelin’. Shakespeare became time, space and movement. Word became energy. Never was the poem more tangible to me than here, like this, without words.

You’ve guessed it by now. I champion poetry that comes to life, even off the paper. Of course, that’s because I love the word as well as the scene, and because one of the most interesting trends in the performing arts in recent years has been slam poetry. There is an entire generation of dramatic arts creators who embrace poetry, give it new momentum and bring poetry to a whole new audience.

Slam poetry is poetry created, conceived and composed for the stage, with the aim of being recited live – or better yet slammed – and of slapping the audience in the face with the words. The way you slam a door. Slam. It is a fairly young form of poetry, I could kid you, if it weren’t that the poetry comes from the oral tradition and this way of composing poetry is actually the beginning of everything. Of course this is nothing new: Homer’s verses were first declaimed orally, centuries on end. By means of a rhapsodist who moved from place to place in order to declaim a memorised text, while accompanying himself on a lyre. This ancient narrative form reconciles the dramatic arts with poetry, and was the forerunner of written poetry. And no, no way is Homer slam poetry, but whatever way you look at it, what the Greek rhapsodists did is a distant relative to what slam poets do today. 

Slam poetry has quickly found its way to the large (and subsidised) theatre stages in recent years. Internationally, Amanda Gorman and Kae Tempest stand a good chance. The latter – who excels in various literary genres – even appeared on the programme in Avignon this year. But slam poetry and poets of the genre are also gaining ground in our own country. To give you an example: both Théâtre National and KVS, the two major theatres in the city of Brussels, have a whole series of slam poets as leading artists in their ensemble. From the performance Malcolm X by Junior Mthombeni, Fikry el Azzouzi and Cesar Jansens made for KVS, to The Fire will become Ashes, but not now by Pitcho Womba Konga to the work of rising star in the firmament of poetry, Lisette Ma Neza. It is no longer possible to imagine contemporary theatre and stage culture without slam poetry. And what’s more, it is inclusive, multi-ethnic, often multilingual poetry that, of all the arts disciplines, most embraces current themes and brings them to the stage.

Take Lisette Ma Neza, the young slam poet who was selected for the theatre festival this year with her performance ‘L’Europe Noire’. Ma Neza studied film at Sint-Lucas in Brussels, but is mainly known as a poet. It is particularly her sense of rhythm and language that are striking. In addition, she speaks the most beautiful Dutch that you could hear in a scene nowadays and her phrasing sometimes reminds me of Josse De Pauw who, now that I think about it, is also without any doubt and although he doesn’t know it himself, a slam poet. 

But what exactly is the difference between a slam and a poem? That distinction is not always so easy to make. For Ma Neza there is not really a difference between the two genres. ‘For me they are becoming more and more interwoven’, she explains to me, ‘but if you do want to see a difference… then I would definitely say that slam is more intent on telling a story, is often longer and has an arc of tension, and that a poem is more an impression?’ Slam is often presented in competition form, with a winner at the end of the evening. So Ma Neza was once vice world champion. Just reflect on that for a minute. ‘Nowadays I often yearn for something a bit slower, but it does work, such a competition’, says Ma Neza. ‘The competition aspect was made up, of course, to make it exciting. It causes every slammer to look for a voice and style completely his own, because he wants to distinguish himself from his competitors.’

People are sometimes contemptuous of slam poetry. Now and then, quibblers claim that poetry can only really be measured for its quality if the text also survives in print. That is nonsense, of course. ‘Then there are many aspects of language that you forget’, believes Ma Neza. ‘A poem, after all, is all about communication, the art of language can also be experienced orally. A stage dialogue also loses quality on paper and only really comes into its own when it is performed. It doesn’t make the literature of drama any less of a genre. Maybe you can compare it to that? Some texts are nice to read, but don’t stand up when you perform them. Others sound better when you hear them out loud. The art of poetry cannot be captured exclusively on paper, but also in our mouths. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.’

People who are contemptuous of slam were also undoubtedly concerned when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Because a pop song is just a popular thing, and what’s the world coming to if we give out a Nobel Prize for that? It’s a form of purism that I’ve never been able to understand. It is self-evident to me that Dylan’s songs register through their lyrics, and that in that way they are part of literature, even if they are never intended to be read, but to be sung and listened to. 

When Dylan won the Nobel Prize, he was unreachable at first for a few months. Then he sent Patti Smith to the ceremony. That resulted in historical images that you can find on YouTube. But the best was yet to come. A few months later, Dylan still sent a speech out into the world. To a rippling piano tune, he reminisced for fifteen minutes about what inspired him as a young writer. From Buddy Holly it goes to Leadbelly, over to Moby Dick to end up eventually with Homer. ‘Je suis persuadée que certains des plus beaux vers de notre époque se trouvent dans les chansons de Bob Dylan’, Marguerite Yourcenar already had recorded in 1972. 

Fifty years later it is no different, and it is also no different with the most beautiful lyrics being created today. These are often not found in collections of poems, but between podcast and stage, in the frayed, obscure little rooms where open mics are held and young artists pop in in great numbers to break open the gates of poetry. 

If this is going to be a defence for anything, then let it be for that: break out of the collection, get rid of the page, go out and listen sometime at such an evening where young poets, through trial and error, sometimes varying in quality, are busy writing, slamming and thinking up the poetry of tomorrow.
This Defence for Poetry was commissioned by Poëziecentrum and VONK & Zonen in the context of Poetik Bazar 2022.