Friday, November 10, 2017


Although I try to “keep up,” I confess to being somewhat of a Luddite, often lagging way behind  contemporary social customs, and last week-end I was made more aware of my age when I went up to Grand Coteau, Louisiana to hear poets Darrell Bourque, Patricia Smith, and Allison Joseph read at an annual Festival of Words event. The Chicory’s Coffee and Cafe buzzed with poetry lovers, teachers, and students interested in literary events. We chose a table at the back of the room where young people from Baton Rouge were recognized for traveling some distance to hear the poets perform.

About midway through the second reading, I began to hear fingers snapping and wondered about the disruption. Instead of abating, the students near me continued to snap when they identified with a particularly arresting verse or line they heard. For me, the sound was distracting, and when I got home, I began to research the pros and cons of finger snapping at public events.

It seems that I am indeed way behind the times. Although I was in my teens and early twenties at the time of the beatnik revolution, I knew nothing about finger snapping that went on at poetry events, had read nothing about the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village where finger snapping at poetry readings was in vogue. Of course, the finger snapping was mainly a survival action for poets because the old Gaslight Cafe was located beneath apartment dwellers who objected to the traditional hand clapping type of applause that wafted upstairs and kept them awake. 

Finger snapping, rather than clapping, was also a custom in the Roman Empire, and there are pages and pages of justifications for this custom in the classroom, in poetry slams, and during political speeches — snapping instead of clapping is a quieter demonstration of support and appreciation. I might add that this form of applause can also signal a kind of political activism. Snapping fingers is very alive and well in college cultures across the nation and abroad in countries like Great Britain.

As a Luddite, I was brought up to regard finger snapping as a rude gesture that indicated an impatient family member or friend who wanted me to serve them in some way pronto! When I visited in Mexico several summers, I was told to summon waiters in restaurants by snapping my fingers, but I never could bring myself to do it (and I can actually snap my fingers very well, even now with ailing nerves in my left hand). 

One writer has complained that finger snapping turns readings into competitions for poets to create more and more emotional dramas in their poetry, but this writer seemed to be in a minority in the finger-snapping world. For me, the constant finger snapping at the Festival of Words broke into my listening mood, and I reckon I wouldn’t have been a very good beatnik poet although I was writing heavy emotional lyrics in the 50’s. I know that when I do a reading now, I appreciate healthy hand clapping at the end of the poetry share, and I think I’d be greatly distracted if the sound of one hand snapping broke into the reading of a line or verse.

And having said all of this, I do appreciate that young people are listening to contemporary bards. Perhaps the interruptions indicate that which Robert Frost conveyed when he said that “permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly…the proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but we knew at the [sound] of it, we never could forget it.” And so, I might conclude, perhaps he would’ve approved of snapping our fingers at once when we heard a great line! 

Artwork by me.

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