Kevin Riordan: Professor demonstrates poetry that finds the ear

"We're celebrating poetry that was meant to be vocalized," said Tyler Hoffman, Rutgers-Camden professor and author of "American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop." (Kevin Riordan / Staff)

Reading a poem is quite different from hearing it, even when the words don't change.

But while any poem can be read aloud, others are made to be "embodied" live, Tyler Hoffman says. And bearing witness to such a performance can be "transformative."

The singular impact of "public performance poetry pitched to a mass audience" is the focus of the Rutgers-Camden professor's ambitious new book.

American Poetry in Performance (University of Michigan Press) is subtitled From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop. In it, Hoffman riffs with expert enthusiasm on more than a century of literary, popular, and populist culture.

Finding performance poetry's origins in 19th-century oratory, and its contemporary expression in poetry "slam" competitions, Hoffman describes a resonant art form that connects Camden's Good Grey Poet and Tracie Morris, a "Nuyorican" slam champ.

And during a solo performance on campus Wednesday, the author blended a rich mix of voices - Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Sonia Sanchez - into an evocative whole.

Amid the inevitable distractions of an outdoor performance I found moments when I really could hear America singing. "We're celebrating poetry that was meant to be vocalized," said Hoffman, 45, a father of three who grew up in Maryland and lives in Philadelphia.

"This poetry was composed to be heard. It was meant to be performed in front of live audiences. And today we're going to fulfill it."

Hoffman, who earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Virginia in 1995 and has taught at Rutgers-Camden for 16 years, is more of a scholar than an actor.

But he gamely tried on the disparate personas of Vachel Lindsay's "The Santa Fe Trail," Anne Waldman's "Fast Speaking Woman," and a half-dozen others, and managed to hold his mostly young audience for nearly an hour.

"Poetry becomes alive . . . when it's performed," observed Dan Rienstra, 18, a freshman from Haddon Heights who was one of about 60 people at the event.

Philadelphia resident Angel Purnell, also 18, a freshman and, like Rienstra, not a student of Hoffman's, compared poetry to theater.

As with a script, she said, what's on the page can become something quite different on the stage.

Even when the stage is outdoors: Trucks roaring, pedestrians shrieking into cellphones, and helicopters swooping overhead punctuated the performance. But the autumn sunshine was as gorgeous as the applause was generous. And the vibe was . . . cool.

Such was not always the case when poetry was "recited." Thought of as the decorous doings of literary salons, readings were generally elite gatherings.

But as Hoffman's book observes, hearing poetry became a more democratic, even radical, activity in the 20th century.

Like the Black Arts movement of the '60s and '70s, and the poetry slam scene that seemed ubiquitous in the '90s, "beat poets" such as Ginsberg helped define an earlier era.

As was true then, the experience of enjoying poetry together still enables people to realize common bonds, Hoffman added. It can be "the ritual enactment of community."

I remember feeling that way the first time I attended a reading of gay poets, back in the '70s; the sense of belonging, of sharing a sensibility, was much more powerful and surely more memorable than the actual poetry (not one word of which I remember).

Whitman, he of the egalitarian views, makes a logical starting point for Hoffman's book. And the author cites the evolution of the poet's successive editions of Leaves of Grass as evidence of the "aliveness" of the work.

But sometimes, live performances lose this priceless quality. Hoffman noted that Ginsberg eventually became reluctant to do his signature poem, "Howl," because "audiences came with expectations."

I certainly didn't expect a professorial white guy to so convincingly inhabit the Sanchez poem "a black/woman/speaks," as Hoffman did that sunny afternoon in Camden.

I've heard the poem before. Never quite that way.


Contact staff writer Kevin

Riordan at 856-779-3845,