Necessity demands that a post about ‘the 4 a.m. mystery’ be written during that very hour, however ungodly. If you’ve been running on fumes for the past several hours (or weeks) as I’ve been, John Rives’ talk will give you a nice break from burning the midnight oil.
In his lighthearted monologue about the bizarre coincidences surrounding 4 a.m., John Rives offers audiences some respite from the esoteric jargon of other speakers at TED.
His talk is right up the entertainment alley of TED. The ‘idea worth spreading’ here has nothing to do with the content presented. It doesn’t beg any thought-provoking questions. There is no take away or call to action as is typical of a TED talk. This monologue is but one example of how performance poetry can turn the spoken word into an artistic delivery meant for pure entertainment. Of course, TED contributors with farfetched topics like Rives’ do ask audiences to get into the “This is completely ridiculous, but please do humor me anyways” mindset.
Though it may seem like an asinine addition to the TED lineup, Rives’ talk is nothing short of ‘spoken brilliance’ that deserves as much appreciation as a classical performance conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. An authority on interactive narratives, Rives weaves together technology and storytelling in his monologue, turning it into an entertaining performance that gives audiences a glimpse into the lexicon of poetry.
And really, the heart of this blog post is about the intersection of poetry and story-telling. Indeed, TED reserves an entire portion of its ‘Themes’ section to narratives, rightfully so. Within the sphere of entertainment, the art of the narrative has gotten lost between the production of meaningless rap songs and cliché rom-coms. Over the internet, story-telling has been reduced to poorly-conceived personal travel blogs (perhaps a step-up from the days of Livejournal, if anyone can call that progress). More likely for the average person, the narrative voice has been defined by the careful construction of tweets and status updates, instagrams and pin boards. If only all these social media outlets had a filter for what was truly worth sharing. Rives pulls narrative back into something worth listening to, something worth thinking twice about.
Perceptive members of the audience will notice the subtle nuances of his performance that effectively spark conversation about the value of the poetry and narrative. Rives’ other TED talks convey the true sense of performance poetry that he only hints at in “The 4 a.m. mystery.” Sarah Kay, a spoken word artist and counterpart to Rives in the TED community, describes the spoken word in her own performance:
“Spoken word poetry is the art of performance poetry. I tell people it involves creating poetry that doesn’t just want to sit on paper, that something about it demands it be heard out loud or witnessed in person.”
Spoken word artists (most definitely distinguishable from rappers, singers, writers) are a different breed of story-teller. They understand rhythm and melody like musicians and can weave a plot together as well as novelists can. With that much dexterity in their back pockets, it’s no wonder that spoken word artists can flex their narrative powers and put most poets to shame. Even with the push towards a more visceral style of contemporary poetry in the 1990s, the narrative voice in spoken poetry still struggles to become a mainstream form of expression. Def Jam Poetry, Poetry Slam, and other similar contests have gained a loyal audience since their beginnings, but prosaic communication still continues to dominate most talks given by speakers. Many poets still do not venture beyond the written word to express their narrations.
The spoken word does demand that a storyteller interact with her audience. It also demands that the audience respond to the poet just as quickly. Spoken poetry, unlike its written counterpart, is accessible to the audience and facilitates ‘immediate connections’ as Kay points out in her own talk. When music is stripped of all instruments and stories are stripped of their concreteness on a page, nothing is left but the artist’s vocal chords and hopefully the creative genius and boldness to convey a poem’s meaning verbally.
There isn’t enough poetry that leaps off the page into the realm of the spoken word. Poetry elevates the power of narration, yet still struggles to find its place in the entertainment industry. Though poetry made its greatest debut through oral tradition, early advances in communication technologies (the printing press) moved storytelling down the path of publication. Poems began to thrive on the page and poet’s voices were reduced to the pages of a softbound paperback collection. Today’s boom in social media usage pushes the narrative voice even further down the publication assembly line so the age-old concept of oral poetry still seems as foreign today as it did after the printing press was invented.
At the least, John Rives gets a good laugh out of viewers. ‘The 4 a.m. mystery’ can do more than just make it easier to wallow in the misery of being awake at such an awful hour of the day though.
By: Dy Phi