"That room back there felt like this point of generation for people who were already poets," Joseph says with a touch of nostalgia in her voice.

But that was before poetry became a participatory sport. Now the great unlettered come, too, those people who never actually read anything. They hear a poem, note that it's meaningful and, even more noteworthy, that it's short, and they think, "How hard can that be?" Before you know it, they're poets.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Jack Evans, who has been part of the poetry scene in Phoenix since before it was a scene. "I think it's great that it's opened up for the people to have access to it. But unfortunately, it creates a group of people who think they're poets."
Indeed, one predominant theme of the new scene is the glorious Spoken Word itself, and the poets recite odes to the ecstasy of being a poet writing poems about being a poet writing poems. As long as there has been history, there has been poetry. The novel is a relatively new genre, first taking form in 1605 with the publication of Don Quixote. But poetry dates back beyond memory.

The great Greek epics go back at least to the ninth century B.C.; they purported to be history, cast in verse as a mnemonic device, with rhyme and meter that helped the teller remember the sequence. The medieval Spanish troubadour, reciting "The Song of the Cid," might have repeated refrains such as "may his beard grow ever longer" as a stalling device while he struggled to recall what came next. He shortened or lengthened his performance depending on how well it was received by his audience. It was an oral form, not the least because very few people knew how to read, anyway.

Over the centuries, literature evolved beyond the spoken word--and on to an age of information overload, too many books and magazines, too many words flashing on the screen, too many pictures transmitted from one eye to the next faster than the speed of thought. How does one communicate through all that noise?

"I think we're going into a postliterature age," says Mary McCann. "With computers and TV, reading has just fallen by the wayside. Maybe we're beyond the written word."
The spoken word, on the other hand, takes a step backward to find a way for people to connect. Like music, poetry hits a more visceral part of the cerebral cortex than prose, as if the rhythm hot-wires the message into the brain circuits. Poetry is not only oral, but it is compressed thought--to borrow a phrase from digital technology. It is not just any group of words, but the concise words that carry an emotion, a transcendental image. And ideally, when read or heard aloud, it touches the mind of the listener and expands to the size of the original emotion.

Enraptured graduate students in creative-writing programs warble mystically about finding a voice in their writing, but they seem to miss the obvious: that the term "voice" refers to more than an abstract stylistic identity, but also to the very sound of the words. They forget that reading and writing are merely extensions of speech, and speech is a way of expressing all the notions rolling around inside our brains, and then, more important, getting those thoughts out and forcing them on someone else. "Ego," after all, means "I, me," the voice inside one's head. And that inner speech closely resembles the voice the writer carries in his or her style.

Some of the new poets, however, speak a bit too loudly. They are poetry sluts who go from poetry reading to poetry reading, not so much to hear someone else's poetry as to hear their own precious and mellifluous utterances. In Phoenix, they've got plenty of rooms where people at least pretend to listen.

@body:Ego and ennui reign over the Monday-night slam at the Congo club in Scottsdale, where the poetry, as emcee Ted Christ calls out like a barker, jumps "off the page and on the stage and in your face tonight."

The walls are festooned with primitive paintings that look like updated rip-offs of the turn-of-the-century French painter Henri Rousseau. The overstuffed chairs and couches around the stage are deliberately mismatched. Smoke hangs in the air as thick as in 19th-century Pittsburgh.

"This is poetry," exclaims one reveler, "dark and mysterious and smoky."
The crowd favors the six-rings-through-the-ear-and-one-through-the-nose look, the women decked out in black, right down to their lipstick, the guys with ponytails let down for the evening and carefully laid across their leather- or flannel-covered shoulders.

"We had a girl," Christ recites, "who made the statement, 'All the problems of the world, all the crime and all the pollution is the fault of every baby boomer.' And when she got off the stage, I said, 'You know, I heard that poem in 1966.'"
When he's not master of ceremonies at poetry events, Christ (rhymes with "cyst") makes his living by hustling poems and Polaroids in pickup bars. With black curls hanging from a Mad Hatter's top hat, he offers to take couples' photos while they are carousing, then improvises a poem for them to fill up the minute or so the photo takes to develop.

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