Poetry as a Catalyst for Sense and Sensation

Mar 09, 2021

Here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(Here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
And the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
Higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
And this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

(e.e. cummings)

I first encountered director Andrei Serban and composer Elizabeth Swados’ interpretation of Euripides’ classic drama The Trojan Women in 1975 and, at the time, the production felt both ancient and fully of its moment. I was mesmerized by the theatrical blend of music and images that seemed to capture the cataclysmic events of Troy as well as the ethos of the mid 1970’s. As a study of acute grief under life-threatening circumstances, the production depicted the shifting dynamics of a catastrophe amidst an onslaught of calamitous, non-linear scenes. The ferocity of the women’s subjugation and their fevered response was embedded in Swados’s music and sung in a variety of guttural, ancient languages. I moved around in promenade with the audience, free to shift this way and that amidst the sturm und drang of the action as if I were on the streets of Troy following the sack of the city. So much was happening simultaneously. And then, all of a sudden, in the midst of the highly and multi-layered dramatic action, the onslaught of sound and movement ceased, and a singular event unfolded. A woman called the Weaver committed ritual suicide on a balcony high above us. And then two men lowered her headfirst onto a steep ramp and we all watched her body slide ever so slowly down the ramp, twisting and turning in a dim blue light to the pulsive music of a flute and tabla. It appeared that she was falling through air or water. Although it was clear that the actress was in full control of her downward trajectory, the effect was an elegant, poetic free-fall that embodied both horror and beauty. In this extended interlude, the actors and the audience paused together to focus on this expression of death embodied in the plight of one woman and her elegant and horrifying slow motion downwards slide and its inherent metaphorical meanings. This interval is an example of pure stage poetry.

The La Mama ETC’s production of Serban and Swados’s The Trojan Women has been repeatedly resurrected and performed around the world since its premiere in 1974, most recently 2019 in New York City where it was performed by an international cast from Kosovo, Cambodia and Guatemala together with American actors, including a few from the original cast. Over the years since its inception, I have returned repeatedly to re-experience this seminal production and I am always surprised by the poetic moment of the Weaver’s descent, even though I know what to expect.

One of the unique aspects of the theater is its ability to move fluidly from prose to poetry and back again, from descriptive action into expressive action and then back again. From speaking into singing and then back again. From daily activity into moments of extended movement and dance and then back again. 

In the case of The Trojan Women, initially the audience inhabited the space with the actors amidst a turbulent negotiation of human traffic being played out after the Trojan war. A clear narrative drove the action and stitched together the cause-and-effect episodes of brutal subjugation. But then, in the moments of the Weaver’s elegant descent, the rules and the laws of space and time altered radically. The “normal” logic of gravity no longer applied. Abandoning the linear narrative of the quotidian world, the audience entered into a poetic realm. Time seemed to stop and expand at the same time. Then, as the falling incident concluded, we returned to the bricks and mortar of the theater, to the fiction of a Trojan city, and to a more prosaic mode of storytelling. In the realm of poetry, horizontal, linear time is replaced by vertical time, making way for moments of flight and beauty.

In the theater, stage poetry can be particularly powerful because, when it happens, we are transported into an alternate realm; the logic changes and the rules are different. Like Alice passing through the looking glass or Dorothy landing in Oz, or a shadow transporting Wendy to Neverland, the boundaries dissolve and a new adventure ensues. And then, in the end, after all of the richness of experience in a poetic never-neverland, Alice must leave Wonderland, Dorothy returns to a grey Kansas landscape, and Wendy goes back to Bloomsbury. 

Stage poetry on its own, without the support of a sturdy narrative base, is not as effective as poetry that leaps off of the back of strong nuts-and-bolts storytelling. The narrative prepares the audience for these flights of fantasy. Theatrical poetry allows a play to open out into a metaphorical or symbolic expression of ideas and an intensity of feeling or emotion. Through composition, rhythm, sound or a patterned arrangement of movement and language, the poetic expression becomes an embodiment of thought or feeling. The literal, linear narrative melts away and we find ourselves in free-fall, in our own version of flying, released from the classical boundaries of literal narrative. 

In order to create effective moments of poetry for the stage, it might be useful to look to physics and to the difference between classical and quantum mechanics. In classical physics, in the Newtonian conception of a clockwork world, deterministic laws are causal. The world is what it appears to be, and a knowledge of the past allows for knowledge of the future. Not so in quantum physics wherein objects are neither particles nor waves and it is only possible to make probabilistic predictions of the future.  Quantum physics opens a window into a universe in which movement is not only continuous but also discontinuous, where objects can a be in two places at once, where there is quantum entanglement, interdependency and the concept of many-worlds. Anything is possible. 

Think of the linear narrative aspect of theater as classical and the theatrical flights of poetry as quantum. It is possible to say that the classical world is defined by certainties while the quantum world is no more than a tapestry of probabilities. What might be considered implausible in a classical realm, can happen easily in a quantum one. And it is possible to consciously switch back and forth from the classical idiom of prose to the quantum language of poetry in the same production. We can move fluidly from exposition and narrative into a poetic realm of lifted expressivity and expanded metaphor and symbolism.  The poetic quality, the beauty or emotional impact, and intensity of emotion is possible because in a quantum world a brain can hold onto two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time. Using what physicists call fuzzy logic, the audience is invited to play along, to co-imagine, juggling metaphors and symbols, consonance and dissonance.

Theater that lacks poetry, and is burdened with an overabundance of literal logic, feels impoverished to me. Theater that liberates poetry feels magnificent. What sets poetic moments apart from literal prose moments? First and foremost, poetry appeals to the senses and flows in ways that prose does not. Poetic imagery and compositions show rather than tell. The sound of the words, their consonants and their melodies matter sometimes more than the meaning. Poetic sounds celebrate the soft, harmonious and euphonic, or in contrast, the cacophonous, celebrating of the harshness of sound. Movement, on the other hand, is removed from the task of literal depiction. 

To work with the poet’s tools in the theater means to fill space and time with sensation, with symbol and metaphor, with density and rhythm, with allusion and imagery, with assonance, consonance and alliteration. Poetic episodes in which the traditional laws of space and time are transcended lead to moments of theater that are evocative and sensational rather than descriptive and earthbound.  In poetry, a great deal can be expressed in a small amount of time or space, which allows for greater density.  And density is what sets poetry apart from prose. In the poetic realm we are not a prisoner of the day-to-day grammatical rules of movement or vocality. We concentrate ideas into essential, expressive tropes.