This past week, I had the opportunity to experience two very different types of live poetry. I can barely describe either of them, but they were pretty stellar events, ones I’m not sure I’ll ever experience the like of again. One involved former US poet laureate and all-around poet extraordinaire Billy Collins reading at Willamette University. The other was the spoken word event The Poetry Revival at Reed College. Words cannot describe how different they were – just look at the venues, for example. Anyone from this area would guffaw to think about the range of different students with whom I experienced poetry over the span of 50 hours. For example, at one place, a young man awkwardly accused my umbrella of getting water on his poster. At the other, a group of young men were drinking wine out of a bottle while sitting in chapel pews. Anyway, here’s an example of one piece of poetry about each. Both rough – be gentle, dear friends.
Driving to See Billy Collins
I snuck away from work early, and drove
fifty miles, through the hardest rain we’ve had
all year just to hear your voice. Blinded
by water splattering down in sheets, I thought
about death and how it lurks on highways
when headlights aren’t bright enough
and someone is going too fast. And I wondered
if you would write a poem about me if I died
coming to hear your words from your mouth,
a poem about how I risked life for love of art and desire
for brilliance. A mournful beginning, but at the end,
you would, undoubtedly, bring in a dog –
maybe my boxer Gracie – to keep the darkness gray.
You could make it sparkle, laugh, and warm the hearts
of those still here. I would know somehow, my flesh
in the ground, my soul away, that people would
remember me as the one who died. Not a sad thought,
as I held hope of a college English class studying me.
Drenched but alive, I arrived. Your voice wasn’t special,
nor was how you pushed your glasses up onto your round
head between poems, fluffing the gray cloudy tufts above
your ears. But it was worth risking immortality
on this failing planet to see you bow so slightly
as we applauded your words and your ability
to make poetry hospitable to us all.
The fires of revival flamed in chapels
like this, when Edwards thundered among
the pillars and the Awakening woke people to fear.
This 1935 chapel is only modeled after the classics,
and the students don’t bother to pretend,
using the wooden pews to hide open wine bottles
while waiting for the poetry revival to start, named
by three scruffy men in red jackets who seek
a generation fidgeting because of smartphones
and dumb luck. These men do not walk like rock stars,
but, at the microphone, the fire burns in their eyes
as they speak to us sinners. Their poetry is not meant
for the page, but in the air it tumbles and weaves,
revealing, then ridiculing and obscuring, as we lean
forward to hear the rise and fall, the yes and no, the fast
and slow that is the rhythm of the poet, who makes
us laugh like children with the anesthetic of silliness,
before cutting open our chests to see if we’ll cry
as our hearts, our souls, our lungs are pushed aside
to make room for their words to settle inside.
And if we do not cry, it is fine, as long as they can
sit with us, framed by the pipe organ as they tell us in words
rushing and soothing that extinguish the fires of hell
that God is not angry with us as we had feared.