According to African novelist Chinua Achebe, there are three elements to any work of literature: words; maker/arranger of words; and the audience and that these three elements produce a new and living organism. This section will emphasize how this living organism is shaped and transformed as the arranger of words defines his/her voice.
Sekou Sundiata, a recording and performing poet, in an interview with Bill Moyers argued that, once you (an artist) get past the level of technical proficiency, or even virtuosity, there’s the question of how you sound. This theory emerged as he learned (in listening to and studying improvisational music) how important it is for each instrumentalist to develop his or her own sound. The development of sound is somewhat improvisational and somewhat planned. It is improvisational as poetry can be influenced by the call and response tradition which is the exchange or dialogue between a singer or storyteller and the audience. It emphasizes the interdependent relationship that exists between an individual and the community such as the interaction between the preacher and the congregation in black churches, between the soloist and the ensemble in jazz performances. It is planned as the poet can follow a particular format and the poem can be completely written out, but unplanned interplay can enhance a poem. This can occur through listening to poetry out loud over and over and over. Supporting this theory Sundiata comments, “My feeling for the poem is never satisfied on the page. So at home when I’m working in my studio, I do the same thing the kids do who walk around practicing their raps. For me there’s always something about poetry that just has to be heard”(Moyers, 394).
Another poet of the same vein, Quincy Troupe, says this of the sound of poetry:
I think every language has a musical core. I call our language the American language rather than English because the sounds of the American language come from all our different ethnic communities, and these sounds are beautiful to me. As a poet, I try to get the music that’s underneath all of that. I grew up listening to blues and to the old African American people talking in bars and churches and walking the streets and in funeral homes and barbershops and in the beauty parlors and in parks, and I especially loved to listen to jazz musicians talk. So all that musical language that I grew up listening to is what I try to make (Moyers, 413).
Troupe, who is the reigning “World Heavyweight Poetry Champion,” when told that more pleasure is gotten hearing him read than reading the poem from a text, comments:
It’s very important to touch the audience where they are. There’s a debate going on right now about poetry in the United States between those who think that it should be performance and those who think it should be more academic. I happen to be in the academy, but I also think that, in order to get into people’s blood and into people’s consciousness and into people’s lives, poetry has to sing (Moyers, 417).
How does one make poetry sing? Perhaps the answer lies in blues and jazz. Troupe points out that blues and jazz is constructed close to the way Americans speak. Blues, he says, speaks in circles—coming back and saying things over and over again just for emphasis—just as people speak and similarly in blues there is also a whole repetition of lines coming back like refrains. According to Troupe, jazz provides the model for taking a text and improvising on it in a performance (Moyers, 417).