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The scholarship, established in memory of the late actor David Coleman Dukes, is awarded annually to a third-year Theater Arts student working toward a career in stage acting. A bronze plaque commemorating the scholarship benefit held in David Coleman Dukes' name can be seen in the lobby of the Bing Theater, off Queen's Court on the USC campus.
— Madeline Puzo, Dean, USC School of Theatre

 © 2012 Carol Muske Dukes

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• Poetry Tonight! (New York Times Book Review)

July 20, 1997

by Carol Muske-Dukes

In a column in The San Francisco Chronicle not long ago, Lawrence Ferlinghetti asked, "Why are poetry readings never reviewed in the media?" Not a world-shaking question, he admitted (though he went on to discuss the lasting influence of readings by Russian poets and the Beats, his tone hovering near North Beach Oracular).

Ferlinghetti declared himself mystified by critical indifference to poetry readings. What was keeping reviewers away? He considered the sound levels of poetry events, quickly reassuring himself that they were indeed loud enough, and concluded that poetry performances are as "dramatic as any other stage event." Maybe, he mused, the word "reading" should be banned altogether and the performing poet required to memorize lines "like any other actor."

In Hollywood, where we have more actor-poets and performance artists standing on more stages, sound stages, sets, backlots and soapboxes than anywhere else in the world, with more critics in attendance than even Ferlinghetti would desire, poets still feel shabbily treated by the press. Recently, the cover of a Los Angeles weekly ran a banner with the breaking news that poetry may not actually be read by a lot of people ("if L.A.'s poets went on strike, would anyone notice?"). Years ago the book section of the local newspaper used to run reviews of poetry readings - and, in fact, it could be argued that these reviews established a rhetorical model, a prototype, combining the hushed breathiness of the fashion show moderator with the gently insistent authority of personal hygiene guides.

The following is a stylistic simulation:
"Spotlit, his signature gray, tousled mane pulled back in a severe ponytail, Poet X spoke, sang and screamed his poems, combining the personal and the political with moving, razor-sharp with. He occasionally swallowed his line breaks, but his lisp is definitely improving."

Alas, even this knowing a critical gaze was no substitute for the kind of media attention that could turn poets, too, into celebrities. All those struggling to show-case the art of poetry need to stop thinking small. If we expand the screen, lose the temporal frame, we can see that the entire history of poetry could be reviewed as performance.

Thus, poets would be rated not merely on the words they've written but on how performance-friendly those words are. What does it matter if some of the authors are dead? For many contemporary critics, the Author has been dead for some time now. And poets themselves can't help wondering, how good would they have been, the great ones, facing the footlights?

Catullus cracking wise, Caedmon in a flop sweat, good old Anonymous, rapping out a def version of that all-time favorite, "The Twa Corbies." The great Japanese haiku master, Issa, as talk show host, in opening monologue:

New Year's Day
Everything in blossom!
I feel about average.
(trans. Robert Hass)

Or Sappho, warming up the crowd:

Raise the rafters! Hoist
them higher! Give it up
for the bridegroom�€¦
(my trans.)

Golden Age after Golden Age wherein even our icons of solitude stand tough in the critic's spotlight: "Little Johnny Keats, just five feet tall, assumes a pugilist's stance at the mike (which has to be lowered twice) and comes out slugging with his signature 'Bright Star' - but quickly blows his Rocky momentum (and his nose!) during a long hacking aria of coughs. Johnny tucks his handkerchief discreetly into his sleeve, kvetching a bit ('Forlorn! The very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self!'). But when the audience spies blood spots on the boards, it reacts immediately, booing what it sees as a cheap shot. 'The kid's overdoing the Negative Capability,' someone cries, and - just like that - the magic's gone! Forlorn John agrees reluctantly to leave the stage, flinging his final insult over his shoulder: 'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter, therefore ye soft pipes play on.'"

"As soft synthesizer pipes intone 'Feelings,' Ms. E. Dickinson (got up in some white, floor-length antebellum gown sadly emphasizing her melted-hourglass figure), her red-brown shag falling over he eyes, is led, resisting, onstage and into the spotlight by her sister, Lavinia, a drone. The shrinking violet routine is lost on the room, there are shouts of 'Huh?' and 'Louder!' as Ms. D. whispers faintly into the mike:

I never spoke - unless addressed -
And then, 'twas brief and low -
I could not bear to live - aloud -
The Racket shamed me so -

"At this, she half-swoons and totters off - an audience member, sympathetic, offers Prozac, poppers, powdered protein. Who is this tongueless belle?"

"With no introduction at all, Mr. Alexander Pope, who appears to be a humpbacked dwarf wrapped in a fur doublet and canvas back brace, thrusts the mike aside with his walking stick and bellows for his female attendants, dressed as the Graces. He demands a cup of coffee from the waiters for his migraine, sips once and flings it at the front row, then rears back and snarls:

Go lofty Poet! And in such crows,
Sing they sorrow's verse - but not aloud.

"The crowd, now his, begins to rave, gives him a standing ovation as he steps down, whacking heads as he exits. He is crowned Performer Laureate in absentia. Instead of an Oscar, he is awarded an Ozymandias (a miniature reproduction of two vast and trunkless legs of stone, gold-plated: 'Yo, check out my works, ye Mighty, and chill!'), accepted on his behalf by Jewel."

For the poet who is helping shift the emphasis from emotion recollected in tranquility to emoting rendered in amplification, the reward is the muse's cell-phone number. Pushkin to Plath, Rumi to Rukeyser, Bede the Venerable to Baraka - the words on the page can only take the reader so far. Let us not forget Ferlinghetti's stirring, if perplexing, call to arms for tha hapless writer still lost in defiant disconnected reverie: "The sitting poet lays a lot of eggs. Let him stand on his feet and sock it to them."