When you think of poetry, do you think of come-to-Jesus exaltation with your arms in the air? If you’re a poet, maybe. Or perhaps you’re likely to think of poetry as elegant interactions of intellect and emotion. Several years ago when I was teaching in Pennsylvania, I became involved with a literary group that combined community members and students from the college, so that I began attending regular poetry readings.
I would often think that some of what I heard in that group I liked far better than anything I could find in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, which I would occasionally look at with more perplexity than enthusiasm. I wondered why I preferred the poems of the students and concluded, like most people, that modern poetry, the proper published stuff, is incomprehensible and you aren’t even supposed to like it.
I know a good poet who endured the gauntlet of a university poetry writing program, and thus I learned that there is a phrase used in that setting: “academic poetry”. Does that phrase sound cold and lifeless to you? If not, maybe I’ve spent more time in academia than you have.
Under the influence of my little community group back in Pennsylvania, I began to write an occasional poem, but I’m not a real poet, and I know that. I was just playing. I had nothing I really wanted to say with poetry. Then I had a difficult love affair that I would describe as fireworks, in the best possible sense, going off inside a car that was headed over the edge of a cliff. Now I had a topic to write about.
Given this background, I will go sometimes to a poetry reading or even to an open mic night and read something myself. I would really prefer to read fiction, but one seldom finds open mics for fiction, which requires more time. This past Sunday I went to an open mic at the coffee shop Java Monkey in Decatur. The festivities were in a separate room, with a small stage, a row of bleacher-like seats built along one wall to accomodate the audience, and a plastic drop wall that can be opened onto the patio in good weather.
When I first arrived I was surprised, very surprised, to see that the place was fully jammed, people spilling out onto the patio in spite of a light rain, and with folks standing inside. Back in a corner, against the odds I managed to open out a folding chair and find a seat. When the reading got underway, I was reminded of an old-fashioned black church. Occasionally as lines of poetry moved the audience, they would shout out: “Come on!”, “Tell it!”, “You can do it!”
Of course it’s not that it was all great poetry. More than one poem was far, far longer than needed for what the poet actually had to say. Having made the point quickly, the poet went on to reiterate reiterate reiterate, until I was thinking, “Alright already, ya fuckin’ told us.”
But some of the poems rose to what poetry can do, using words, phrases, rhythms to take our humanity and lift it for a few minutes off the ground, to let it shine in the air and make us feel hopeful about being human, make us feel that we can do this. More than once as people came off the stage, someone got up and went over to hug them. Once or twice the poet was so emotionally distraught from pulling their heart out in front of us they needed a hug.
This reading ran for three hours, and at the end there were still people who wanted to read but didn’t have time. It was a Sunday night and because of noise we were required to quit, as people live around there. Another interesting thing about this open mic is that the man who runs it always arranges ahead of time for someone to be a featured reader in the middle. I was fortunate to be there to hear Gypsee Yo, a poet and performer from Albania who is living in Atlanta (but about to return to Albania).
The poems she presented, recited from memory, were mostly about events from Albania, and for most of them, every line came on the blade of a knife. The most striking piece was a long poem (based on real events) about a teenage girl who was made pregnant by an 80-year-old neighbor, who then killed her because she wouldn’t have an abortion. The poem was in three parts, narrated by the girl’s body, by her severed head, and by the old man justifying himself. The story was harsh, but the poetry was astounding. When Gypsee Yo finished her part of the program, including other poems, everyone in that crowded room stood up, cheering and applauding.
I understand the beauty of carefully crafted poems by a talented poet. We need that, the world needs that. Yet if you ask many people whether they like poetry, they’ll probably say no. Perhaps they think of it as dreary intellectual exercises that seem almost intentionally incomprehensible. As for poetry at the other end of the scale, it’s not like we didn’t hear some bad poetry Sunday night, but isn’t there something encouraging about seeing people enthusiastic for poetry?