National Poetry Month & I Sing the Rising Sea

Earlier this month, I was surfing the internet and learned that April is National Poetry Month. The day I saw this I had also just finished reading the I Sing the Rising Sea script. How does National Poetry Month (NPM) relate to one of our shows next season? There are actually a couple of ways!
 
First, I’d like to share a little background information about NPM. It was created by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. According the the Academy, the aim is to:

  • Highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets,
  • encourage the reading of poems,
  • assist teachers in bringing poetry into their classrooms,
  • increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media,
  • encourage increased publication and distribution of poetry books, and
  • encourage support for poets and poetry.

The month is celebrated in many different ways across America. The Norfolk Public Library had award-winning author and poet, Kwame Alexander, speak at the beginning of the month. They are holding events throughout the month including poetry slams, tween and teen poetry hours, and poetic pages. Schools across Hampton Roads will also be participating in their own ways throughout April. Here are some ideas for how you can celebrate.

We are celebrating NPM at Virginia Stage Company by introducing you to I Sing the Rising Sea, another American Soil Series installment and our opening show of next season. Entitled ‘Poem of the Sea’ in its first draft, I Sing the Rising Sea is a piece of theater that explores the concept of sea level rise. Author Eric Schorr does this by flowing through generations and across continents. He also does this through the works of Walt Whitman and the ideas of Langston Hughes. One of the first moments you realize that poetry plays a huge part in the telling of this beautiful story is when you see the words of Walt Whitman from many moons ago. 

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” 
― Walt Whitman, 'Song of Myself' (Leaves of Grass)

 
 Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

 Cover of  Song of Myself  by Walt Whitman

Cover of Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

 

You may not know a lot of poetry, but I would bet that you have at least heard of the well-known Walt Whitman (maybe just because you’ve seen The Notebook where Noah reads the words of Whitman to Allie)! Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he wrote Leaves of Grass, originally a 12 poem book in 1855. Over the next 33 years of his life, he edited and added to the book, creating it’s final iteration of over 400 poems. The opening poem was ‘Song of Myself’ which is from where the above excerpt comes. At the time that Whitman was writing, he was not a popular guy. Many felt that his transcendentalist ideas were inappropriate and should never be printed. An interesting tidbit that I learned while researching Whitman is that during WWII, the American government distributed Leaves of Grass to soldiers for free! Americans took some time to digest, but finally started accepting some of his thoughts almost 100 years later. You may also recognize some of his other work if you ever watched The Dead Poets Society. He wrote those famous words “O Captain, My Captain.”

Whitman is referenced many times throughout the musical, and I can’t help but think that maybe Eric Schorr is inspired by him too. Another poet who was inspired by Walt Whitman and is referenced in I Sing the Rising Sea was Langston Hughes. Hughes was known as the first jazz poet and the leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He was able to deftly combine poetry and music. A fantastic example of his work is The Weary Blues written in 1925.

The Weary Blues
By Langston Hughes

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
     “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
       Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
       I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
       And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
     “I got the Weary Blues
       And I can’t be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can’t be satisfied—
       I ain’t happy no mo’
       And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

 
 Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

 Cover of  The Weary Blues  by Langston Hughes

Cover of The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes

 

Not only is Hughes referenced in I Sing the Rising Sea, but he is an actual character in the musical. Something that I learned from reading the script is that Langston Hughes was accused of being a Communist because of his works. After doing a little digging, I found out that many African Americans of Hughes’ time were drawn to the ideas of Communism because it was an acceptable alternative to the racial prejudice that they were facing everyday. It is also interesting to note that Hughes wrote the preface to a 1946 anthology entitled I Hear the People Singing: Selected Poems of Walt Whitman. It seems Langston Hughes was also inspired by Walt Whitman!

You’re probably wondering at this point why the show is called I Sing the Rising Sea and all I’ve talked about is poetry, right? You may or may not know that we offer student matinees to some of our main stage shows. This happens to be one of those shows. The undercurrent of the entire musical is sea level rise, which is such an important topic to be addressed, especially in Hampton Roads. I also think it’s crucial to show how theatre can be used as a teaching aide. From an educator’s viewpoint, you could use this show to teach about poetry, history, and/or science. I personally cannot wait to see this script realized on stage at the Goode Theatre at ODU in September!


Madeline Dummerth is the Education Assistant in Virginia Stage Company's Education & Community Engagement Department.