Two weeks ago, in the lead-up to a concert, I got to read poetry off a video screen that was larger than the end zone of a football field.
The screen owed its existence to U2, a band known for its perennially modest staging ambitions. Trucked in to Chicago’s Soldier Field for the Irish rockers’ thirtieth anniversary tour of their album The Joshua Tree, the screen served as the backdrop to the stage and was erected—“erected” being the appropriate word for structures like skyscrapers and monuments—at the far end of the field. The thing positively loomed. With a surface area of 9,000 square feet and crisp-as-a-chip 8K resolution, it measured a full 200 feet wide by 45 feet high. Had the line paint been visible through the flooring that the stadium crew put down to protect the turf, the screen would have spilled out well past the sidelines.
U2 of course put their televisual monster through its paces during the concert. Against the chiming arpeggios of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the grinding bass line of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and other songs from their 1987 album, the screen cut between live video of the band and prepared footage evocative of America as imagined in the album—a place of deserts and wide-open country, a space of near-limitless, though woefully unrealized, possibility. Time-lapsed clouds rolled over dusty, sunbaked foothills. The crooked limbs of Joshua trees tangled against the sky. While America the myth and America in fact (complete with one pointed reference to Trump’s border wall) unfolded in splashes of digital light and color, U2, diminutive in size but massive in sound, was practically swallowed up in spectacle.
Love them or hate them, U2 knows how to put on a show.
None of this dazzle and flash, however, accompanied the poetry with which the evening opened. In the hours leading up to nightfall, a series of twenty or so poems played themselves out in a slow, silent loop on the mega-screen. Scrolling up its rightmost third like a credits crawl, they marked time while noisy concertgoers found their way to the floor and to their seats. Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. Naomi Shihab Nye and Yusef Komunyakaa. Plain white text against a plain tan background.
The poems, appearing unannounced, one after another, tapped into and anticipated the concert’s dueling Americas theme. Whitman’s optimistic “I Hear America Singing” bounced off Jamila Woods’s grimly playful “Ghazal for White Hen Pantry,” bounced off Alberto Rios’s timely “The Border: A Double Sonnet.” That many of the poets were women and/or contemporary writers of color was, I think, no mistake. In the face of an American mythmaking tradition founded on erasures of all kinds, one gets the sense that these poems, climbing up the screen like the transcript to some ongoing commentary, were meant as a corrective or an antidote—an antidote, perhaps, even to the thundering concert that would follow them.
And meanwhile in the stadium, 50,000 waiting bodies chattered and fidgeted and Instagrammed and milled, munching concessions and thumbing their phones. Vendors who hawked cold beers and colorful drinks, which sloshed in bulbed, hookah-shaped bottles, navigated the stadium steps like mountain goats.
Let’s be clear: no one that night came to Soldier Field for poems. They came for bright lights and big sound, for the band, for the album. Some came to drink, others because their friends made them. No doubt to most attendees (myself included), Nye, Rios, and the rest were one distraction among many. As such, these poems—indeed any poems—were laughably ill-suited to the venue. Despite the strong communal history of poetry and reading, poems themselves demand sustained attention if they are to do their work. And up until nine thirty that June night, sustained attention was in short supply.
It is better, therefore, to think of these poems as a kind of specter haunting the concert. Fragmented by distraction and offered up on the very mega-screen that would later, in a burst of color and light, transform a crowd into an audience, the poems arrived in bits and pieces. Lines slipped through. Words not easily assimilated into routine rose like bubbles and ruptured the surface of waters white Americans can too readily assume are still.
—“let the men keep tender / through the time let the time / be wrested from war”—
—“pantry in your chest where you stuff all the Black in”—
—“The border is a real crack in an imaginary dam”—
Beneath the noise, below the din, the voices that were speaking, that have always been speaking, continued their speech. And my (in)attention to them, deliberate or not, conscious or not, was not a neutral act.