Tales Told by Poets


The Sisters by Ralph Peacock (1900)
The Sisters by Ralph Peacock (1900)

Poetry is maligned by many, beloved by its avid readers, and ignored by, perhaps, the majority of people except for a couple of their favorites. It’s so visual in formation on a page, but is it too complicated, with lines where you pause at the end, only to have to continue to another line or two to get the whole picture? It can be obscure: how can we know exactly what the poet means when borrowing content from one image to mean yet another (metaphors)? But it also can be terribly frank, even indelicate, igniting a flame of truth some would rather hide in safer language.

What if we lift a poem from the page and give it a different, perhaps more animated, chance with an audible voice? Poetry, it seems to me, begs to be read aloud, listened to within a space of ease and safety, shared between partners and friends, welcomed by strangers who care to know more deeply the insides of others, the alchemy of words. Who are willing to see you reflected within the poetics of imagination and even come to know themselves better.

I have enjoyed attending readings of all sorts but for one reason or another, I took a hiatus for a bit. Last night I started right up again and went to a poetry reading at a bookstore. I wondered over the number of people who came: perhaps twenty-five in addition to those whom we came to hear. Someone noted that was a decent showing. The small room above the bookstore was full; a couple more sat on the stairs. There were six poets on the billing, each with numerous publications and experiences teaching, editing and coaching. Their knowledge of poetry was apparent. A variety of offerings commenced and it is true that I did not appreciate all as much as I wanted to. Many did speak to me, even struck me in the center, others didn’t reach me but floated off to another listener. That is the way of poems just as it is with prose–we are drawn to what matters to us. Still, it was important I listened.

Sitting among other poets and writers, I was energized. The readers stood before us, some at the podium, some moving away from it, their orations enlivened by gestures. Some were natural speakers; others less so. They first shared a few poems that had changed them. Then they chose one or two of their own and the recitations were more intense, voices full of the intimacy of the work, each word a footprint of their living and doings.

Always one to carry a notebook and pen, I was scribbling away, noting titles and poets I had to explore further. I thought how much had gone into the creation of those poems. What had been sacrificed in the time-consuming efforts of the craft, what words were chosen and discarded, what feelings re-charged or discovered? How many ideas expanded or compressed? I know the temperamental process of poem making. I write them, too. Or do the poems target, then dissemble and redesign us? It is a mystery poets do not care to unravel. The words fling themselves at us or we pluck them from  greater, amorphous beings or we cry out and they oddly arise. Then we shape each word, render it visible.

I was content– until it came closer to my turn. It was the “open mic” part of the readings, when anyone brave enough can sign up to share a poem or two with a captive audience. Adrenalin trumps all in those moments when you lean toward the poet before you and try not to think of yourself. It is not easy to stand in front of people you may not know at all and place your life before them, this amalgamation of letters that became an entire work of love. It is a glimpse of who you are without reasonable defenses erected. A poem is a thing that is at its most tender, prone to bruising, when shared; it sheds the weight of craftsmanship and is unimpeded by explanations.

I started writing as a child and the first things were poems. I wrote poetry for decades and have published some. But there have been times in my life when I wrote no poems. It was too raw a thing; nothing that came wanted to be shown in the light. Or they felt too daunting to wrestle with, the work of it tedious, unfriendly, filling me with a humility that left me, finally, discouraged. Now I write them as they are needed to be written. I have a poetry blog and those small ones come and go happily, not perhaps so elegant or stirring. They are enough to tease me, make me hungry for more. I know truly respectable poems take much longer, as well as rigorous discipline. I write fiction and non-fiction as well. How much time can I, will I, give a fledgling poem that might dissipate before it finds itself written?

But let’s go back to that public poetry reading. Now I stood in the front of the room. I had published a poem about a man who is on a liver transplant list, an alcoholic I knew when working in the mental health and addictions treatment field. I read it aloud and he sat before me again, his Irish brogue rumbling. I recalled his yellowed eyes, painfully smiling. Such bravado he had, and such grief. A client, a man who moved me. I wanted to make known a snippet of his story and so, this poem. My legs trembled a bit because I hadn’t read in public for a few years, but my voice felt strong. I was bearing the poem forward.

The second poem, also published, was one given wholly to me, one that came upon me during a walk as though whispered in my ear. I had recorded the words on my phone as I strode along in my neighborhood. A psalm, a chant, an instruction from above, an incantation. It made (and still makes) me remember I am not alone but tethered to God. This one was the one I lay before the audience with a hope that they understood its meaning.

And then, I was done. Another poet shared his efforts, his experience. Then a farewell to two well-known poets who read and I am friendly with. It was a night that left me lighter yet fuller, something one can’t always claim. I am going to make this a habit once more–reading aloud and listening to my fellow poets.

All last night and throughout today I have thought about how human beings have historically gathered together for storytelling, to pray and carry out healings, to sing songs and expose what was on their hearts. To be heard and to listen well. Telling tales, creating poems–these are crucial to our living even if we want to think not. How else to declare love in its most rapturous form? How else to commemorate an event, to send off a friend or family member when their days are done? To rally when one’s burdens of life seem unique? We harbor private thoughts, but there are times speaking aloud is better. And making poems to read to others.

How far we have ranged from fire pits under a sky so star-flung that it is not ever quite dark. There are tribal cultures today who adhere to these traditions but one of the things I must do is attend poetry readings and open mics. It is important to me to support other writers. It is important for me to release my poems to the air and see if they sail a little. We are each just a person first, shaped by our longings and desires, exultations and travails. Our poems and stories wait to be given their few moments. And poems can elicit laughter, too. We need to pull up a chair more often.  Bring your own.  Be prepared to hear the human heart.

Nurse reading to a Little Girl by Mary Cassatt (1895) Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Nurse reading to a Little Girl by Mary Cassatt (1895) Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


(NOTE: If you are interested in the poems I read, you can find “Getting on the Liver Transplant List in Spark: a Creative Anthology, and “Whatever is This” can be found at http://www.thebluehourmagazine.com. My poetry blog, Poetry for the Living, can be accessed from this blog. Thank you kindly for your support!)