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Djelloul Marbrook: The Body Language of Poetry

Don’t gesticulate with your hands or make faces when speaking, the teachers at my British boarding school told me. It’s vulgar. I’m sure that this enjoinder at such an impressionable age imbued my poems with reticence and austerity.

But poetry has a body language. The poet’s way of breathing supplies oxygen to the body and to the poem. The poet’s way of walking and talking is inherent in the poem. I knew a poet who walked like the prow of a ship cutting through waves, the bone in its teeth, as sailors say, and that how her poems walked and talked.

The body language of a poem is also shaped by the script used in its writing. If it was first written by hand the poet’s hand, the stops and starts, the way I’s are dotted and t’s crossed, lives in the poem. If the poem was first typed, the typographical font chosen—Courier, Times Roman, Helvetica—has a hand in making the poem. If the poem was voice-recorded, the background sounds, the poet’s breathing, the tone of voice, are all resurrected in the poem.

A poem will be tall or squat or square or wavy or angular, according to its initial look. This is why the designer of a book is essential to its success in conveying the spirit of the poet—an endangered concept in this time of print on demand.

A poem may be said to have a tone, a melody, a choreography, an orchestration. As the poem itself may employ metaphor, so these metaphors take part in its deliverance as an artwork.

There are poems that jolt, that proceed in starts and stops, that withdraw, that keep falling silent, that shout, that dance. Almost any metaphor of communication may be applied to a poem.

But body language is the metaphor I want to address. I think it fair to say that on the whole British poetry is less demonstrative than American poetry, and that may well derive from the British idea that it is vulgar to gesture to make a point.

British and American cultures have both been challenged and enriched by floods of immigration, often from cultures where gesturing while talking is more common. Poets raised in a British boarding school are inevitably influenced.

When I left that school and entered a Manhattan milieu of Sicilian and Jewish gestures I was enthralled. Sicilians could say shut up without a sound, Jews could make me roll on the floor laughing with a facial expression. It was heavenly.

My Prussian grandmother when she first heard Adolph Hitler on a Philco cathedral radio exclaimed, He’s not German! She detected his Austrian accent. Not given to gesturing herself, she explained that he was talking through his nose. Oh, I said, as if I understood.

But poetry talks through its body parts.

If a poet chooses a line with an extraordinary number of vowels the line sounds distinctly different from a line with a high consonant count. The latter will sound more guttural, more given to end stops, chunkier, if you will, and the poet will have to handle line breaks quite differently from a vowel-rich line.

The presence of a large number of o’s or e’s or I’s will all affect the musicality and affect of the poem. It might be said that consonants are the bones and vowels the flesh of a poem. It might be said their interaction is the poem’s musculature.

But all of this can be defeated by a poor choice of body type, type size and the relationship of title typography to text. All too many poetry books today run roughshod over these delicacies. It is not the designer’s business to rewrite the poem: it is the designer’s business to celebrate the poem.

The number of books and websites that offend this principle is legion.

For example, if you set Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” in Times Roman or Helvetica you succeed only in showing that you didn’t appreciate the soaring, rhapsodic poem. If you set any of Denise Levertov’s poetry in squat Arial you show that one poet might as well be another to you. You have broken the body language.

Poems pound, stammer, whine, sing, take wing. Hart Crane’s voice is often the rare counter-tenor’s. Charles Bukowski’s is often the whiskey voice of a longshoreman. William Carlos Williams often sounds like a much-loved uncle conversing with, not talking to, a child. And in any case the vibratory apparatus of the poem is distinct and different.

You can profile a poem as you would profile a person. You know it even if it is walking down the street with its back turned to you. Are its shoulders hunched? Do its feet kick out ahead? Do the arms swing? Is it noticing its environs? Does it care?

The Supreme Court in its tawdry servitude to corporate dominance has declared the corporation a person in spite of a consensus that it is patently an absurd idea. It would have been on firmer ground to have declared the poem a person, the problem being that most poems suffer, whether gloriously or as failures, from multiple personality disorder. They are Genghis Khan one moment and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe the next.

That is because the poem, for all its characteristic body language, is fey, a changeling. And being so, no body type, no printer’s font, perfectly fits. The great poem escapes itself, like fume from an alembic. It hangs around to haunt, but it cannot be put back into the bottle.

Emily Dickinson’s poems are a challenge in this respect. Her frequent use of the dash invites all sorts of flights of fancy—words made to walk the plank, for example. Her characteristic terseness and habit of stopping when you expected her to go on almost assure us of knowing her personal body language. You can imagine there had been a hush around her.

How then to instill a hush in a poem? Will it lean away from the Anglo-Saxon and towards the Latinate Norman influence on English? Perhaps. But it might just as well lean the other way. It depends on what the poet can carry off. There are short men who live tall, and tall men who live short.

The poet may have in mind the body language of someone else, someone loved or hated. The poem will be made as the drawing is drawn. Someone, something is in mind. And the appropriate body language must be found, and, with luck, not savaged by its typesetting.

The appearance of a poem on a page is a kind of celebration of its body language. In language poets and concrete poetry it is crucial, and in all cases it is never incidental. It dances with the eye. The mind second-guesses it, and it second-guesses the mind in a flirtation. The choice of paper, the size and format of the page—everything is essential to its success.

This is an issue that the publishers of print-on-demand poetry must address. They use print on demand because of its economies, but it can brutalize the exquisite economies inherent in poetry. In a certain way, now that electronic formatting has advanced, the e-book of poems is superior to the print-on-demand book, because it can better address the demands of the poem.

Delivering poetry to the page is not the same as delivery of poetry to the air. The poet has had a certain voice, a certain sound, a certain demeanor from the start. It might be declaimed, which is to say given with rhetorical panache, or it might be recited, which is to say the energy required to fetch it from memory is present in the sound. It might be sung.

The way a poet delivers a poem may—or may not—reveal the poem when it come to mind. If the delivery is embellished, as is often the case at readings and slams, then the poem may come to us in disguise, and we sit in the audience wishing we could see it. There is a certain vogue for singsong delivery of a poem. I find it an annoying pose, a speaker’s attempt to divert us from the poem’s natural body language.

For this reason, and at cost to my late-blooming career, I eschew readings and despise slams. My idea of reading well is to disclose the music and its ballet with thought as the poem took shape, to recall its moment. Perhaps the poem will set up a hum in the room, the kind of hum to which applause would be an offense. Such is my low key.

Other poets, many great poets, are high-key poets. Others are like mathematicians at their chalkboards or like great orchestrators, their batons in the air. Some are architects or carpenters, joiners.

But always there is an identifiable body language that follows the choreography of the person’s history, the sum total of the person’s experiences. That body language has a look, a brush with passersby, a manner of getting from one place to another. It may fill a room, taking more space than allotted, or it may take up less and less space until, like a good dervish, it vanishes.

 — by Djelloul Marbrook writing for Vox Populi

djelloul marbrook4


Djelloul Marbrook


35 comments on “Djelloul Marbrook: The Body Language of Poetry

  1. Regina Colonia-Willner, PhD
    December 9, 2019

    Thank you so much for your deep and brilliant chamber music which, at times, sounds symphonic! Many thanks for your generous, extremely valuable observations. I am in the process of writing my diploma thesis on the intersection of poetry and Jungian psychoanalytical practice through the transcendent metaphor (which lives in both) and, as a poet as well, am grateful for the way you express metaphor in your wonderful text. As Jung points out: in creation, you are created.


  2. wordpalettes
    April 10, 2016

    Fr logged this on Google+


  3. wordpalettes
    March 21, 2016

    I love your perspective and unique insight on the delivery of poetry. Tonight I took a workshop and we discusses the difference between prose and poetry. I love the unique angle that you take in how poetry is read….”you can profile a poem like you can a person”. Wonderful visuals, beautifully written!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alma
    December 14, 2014

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  5. uwillumination
    November 14, 2014

    Reblogged this on Illumination.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. seriozni seznamka
    October 1, 2014

    jiní žijí v partnerském vztahu, který ѕi vzájemnou neverou cas od casu okorenují.

    Domluvte ѕi schuzku se singles z Prahy, kterí splnují vaše nárocné požadavky.

    Prroc se rovnou nezkusítе seznámit se singles v našich chatovacích místnostech.


  7. Povonte
    October 1, 2014

    Very deep! Loved it.


  8. aarontremper
    September 30, 2014

    As a touring slam poet, I definitely appreciated this work! Great!


  9. elioa
    September 3, 2014

    Reblogged this on The Good Man's Blog and commented:
    Stunning insights on the art of poetic delivery.


  10. ccd89spirit
    August 31, 2014
  11. moss1933
    August 29, 2014

    Reblogged this on A Painterly Life and commented:
    ~And oh… the power of the written word.


  12. Pingback: “Accents” by Denice Frohman |

  13. allthingshuman20
    August 27, 2014

    Reblogged this on All Things Human and commented:
    The great poem escapes itself, like fume from an alembic. It hangs around to haunt, but it cannot be put back into the bottle.


  14. N. Turner
    August 27, 2014

    I think Bukowski understood this on an intuitive level.


  15. olufajy
    August 26, 2014

    I love this. I am new to poetry and will love you guys to recommend books to guide me through.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Stuart M. Perkins
    August 26, 2014

    Yes very intense. Loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Jackson Williams
    August 26, 2014

    Reblogged this on Homie Williams..

    Liked by 1 person

  18. beingeternal
    August 25, 2014

    Breathed this piece to the last. Very intense and insightful. Thank you for such a brilliant post.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. appslotus
    August 25, 2014

    Reblogged this on Apps Lotus's Blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. erikleo
    August 25, 2014

    Its interesting hearing poems read aloud so there is no distraction of body language. I remember a year ago listening to Four Quartets by a well known actor. Who was it now?

    Liked by 1 person

  21. melissabaileycreations
    August 25, 2014

    I love this idea, thank you so much for sharing. What is your favourite piece of poetry to recite?


  22. earwaxdissertation
    August 25, 2014

    Reading this post was like floating in warm honey. It is interesting that I find you also seem to find poetry slams lacking. As I have often said, the taco shop poets are practicing words while others have mastered them behind ivory towers. Loved the post.


  23. September J. D.
    August 24, 2014

    Reblogged this on September's Wormhole.


  24. tealighttaylor
    August 24, 2014

    Wow! That is a unique angle of poetry one that had never crossed my mind, but now seems rather obvious. Thank you for this post.


  25. Josephus-Joppa
    August 24, 2014

    Reblogged this on Word Play, Joppa Say and commented:
    I had been focused on the performing of my poems pretty heavily, to help my skills and delivery but never thought of this; a poem having its own body language… sometimes it may even be different or counteractive to the way a poet performs it…

    Liked by 1 person

  26. kelseylooks
    August 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on Misadventures of Red Lipstick.


  27. theinarticulatewriter
    August 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on Eternal Lines to Time and commented:
    Ah, very true! Poetry has a way of speaking, a music of its own- a very beautiful music, at that.
    It was lovely to read the thoughts on this.


  28. Quietude's Junction
    August 23, 2014

    Someone like you should be teaching our students how to write.


  29. sheisnathaliie
    August 22, 2014



  30. marbrook
    August 22, 2014

    Thank you for your insights. It may be due to my poor hearing. Or perhaps it’s rather like a preference for chamber vs. symphonic music.


  31. redjim99
    August 22, 2014

    Really interesting piece,



  32. ybreview
    August 22, 2014

    I love the lion’s share of this article, though I am puzzled at how a self-proclaimed connoisseur of poetic gesture and nuance can “despise slams.” (He must have gone to the wrong slams if that singsongy delivery prevails.)

    There is something quite musical in the delivery of poetry, be it on stage or on the page, and I quite agree that as typeface and white space are to the printed poem, so are gesture and timbre to the performance poem.

    Mr. Marbrook’s thoughts on the importance of delivery in spoken poems pairs well with an essay by Jack McCarthy titled “Degrees of Difficulty” in the book The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip Hop and the Poetry of a New Generation, and I’d commend it to anyone who’s keen on this topic. I wish there were an online version of the essay, but I couldn’t find one.

    Thank you for some excellent thoughts and connections.


    • djelloul marbrook
      August 22, 2014

      It may have to do with my poor hearing. But it’s also rather like a preference for chamber music over, say, symphonic. Personal taste. Thank you for your insights.

      Liked by 2 people

  33. sendebaade
    August 22, 2014

    Reblogged this on sendebaade's Blog and commented:
    جهاد حميد البطل


  34. deerbrookeditions
    August 19, 2014

    Reblogged this on Deerbrook Editions and commented:
    Tune into Djelloul Marbrook’s thoughtful perspectives on reading poetry. Djelloul is the author of several books, his first poetry book won the Wick PRize. Deerbrook Editions published his second book Brushstrokes and glances.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on August 19, 2014 by in Poetry and tagged , , , , , , .

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