Stories told in Simple Sounds: My Experience at a James Arthur Poetry Reading

I am lucky enough to attend a school at which I am often offered really, really cool opportunities, like poetry readings throughout the year. I’ve blogged about this before (ref. my post about Joshua Bennett), and two element of every awesome literary event has stayed consistent. They are all incredible, and they are all entirely unique.

I cannot compare the James Arthur reading to much that I have ever heard.

To begin with, it was a pretty simple poetry reading. Twenty-something of us students squished into one of the school’s meeting rooms, where we chatted and made lots of noise, the kind that sounds more like a bubbling of random syllables than a bunch of conversations. Then, James Arthur walked in. He’s a nationally and internationally renowned poet, whose work has been in many top-tier publications. He currently teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins. And for good reason. His work is genius.

I will admit, I had my trepidations at the beginning. But they were all proved wrong, which really should teach me not to judge before I know what I’m talking about.

He’s younger than I thought. Well, turns out he’s not quite as young as he appears to be, and life experience has given him a unique perspective on life.

He doesn’t seem very confident speaking to us. Well, that was before he opened his mouth to read, or recite. He ducked his head when simply speaking to us, when introducing his poems. He seemed nervous, nay, unsure. But when he began to recite, he became a different person altogether. His voice—previously quiet and almost halting— did not rise in volume. But his shoulders straightened and he looked across the room to something that we could not see, his words lent his voice a rhythm and precision that transcended volume. The room fell silent but for Mr. Arthur, and we all listened so intently that I lost track where I was and what I was doing, except for those words.

His rhyme scheme feels random. I mean, what even is this? They keep showing up out of order. Mr. Arthur did explain his rhyme scheme to us, when he was finished reading. It’s not random, but it is meant to be loosely unexpected. The rhymes do show up out of order, but they do so in a way that makes sense, mentally. And the sounds.

Oh, the sounds.

Mr. Arthur manages to do something spectacular. Every word leads to another, whether through alliteration, through rhyme, or simply the knowledge that those words should flow together. He has mastered the use of sound.

In my own writing, I focus on the story first, and I expect the language to sound pretty. But Mr. Arthur, in telling his story, focuses on the sounds, not to the exclusion of all else, but enough so that they are not a secondary expectation when it comes to his work. But they do tell a story. There is no question that they tell a story.

And the stories are all beautiful.

James Arthur writes a lot from his personal experience. And while many of the stories are very, very sad, most have an uplifting note at the end. A vestige of hope, still clinging to the surface of the mind.

I came away from Mr. Arthur’s reading utterly inspired, and a little bit in awe. He’s a genius, and I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to spend forty-five minutes with him, his work, and his explanation of it.

I hope that everyone else in the room feels the same way as I do now, after the fact. Because it’s a very good way to feel.


( I had to include an artsy-ish picture of him. So, here it is. Ta-da.)


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