Poetry Reading and Mimes: Not for the Timid


All art is communication. Inherent in communication is a sender, the message and a recipient.  Art can be very subjective, as can performance. Communication, however, either succeeds or fails.

That’s why public performance can be risky.  Street artists and buskers bare their souls in public daily, in attempts to convey something to those present, who hopefully will appreciate it.  When they succeed, it’s communication.  When they fail, it can be vexing, both for the audience and the artist.  Some art easily adapts to public presentation–for instance, music and dance can be casually or actively enjoyed by passers-by, depending on the quality of the performers, the interests of audience members and the time one has to experience the performance.  Others are harder to convey.

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Few means of expression are riskier than mime. Actors explain that mime is  most difficult to master–that by stripping away audible  narrative elements, minimizing visual triggers and relying solely on expressive motion, mimes intentionally limit the tools humans commonly use to communicate. This either demands commitment from the viewer or makes one want to run for the hills.

As a result, mimes are publicly berated, made the butt of cruel jokes, often ignored and largely unappreciated.  I don’t deny that they can sometimes be annoying but watching a good one can be amazing.  One can enter a different world when watching a gifted mime. At the same performance, though, others may want to throw something.

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Elizabeth Alexander at Barack Obama's Inauguration

Public poetry reading can top pantomime on the audience angst meter,  sending its witnesses soaring to places both unexpected and rewarding or provoking the “fight or flight” reflex. I was reminded of this as Elizabeth Alexander read her Inaugural Poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” igniting an exodus that would have reduced any mother to tears.

Comments ensued en masse across the “interwebs,” most of it unappreciative.  I pretend nothing when it comes to poetry.  I know when I like a piece but sometimes can’t explain why. I’ve written song lyrics but serious poetry just doesn’t come out of me.  Lord knows I’ve tried.  It’s pathetic.

You can find the text and commentary on it here.  I do like Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s take on it. 

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