From time to time, I’ve driven 50 miles or so to attend what’s called an “Oral Tradition” poetry gathering in Sebastopol, California. Larry Robinson, a former poet laureate of Sonoma County, invites 30 to 40 people into his living room several times a year for the evening. The only rule is that all the poems recited, as well as the songs that a few people sing, must be known by heart—delivered from memory. If a presenter has brought books or notebooks, they must be closed while he or she shares.
It’s fairly easy to see the rationale behind this. The very phrase, “by heart,” expresses it. The effort to make to make something that deeply one’s own requires LOVE.
The evenings at Larry’s are always memorable. Someone at a gathering may recite three or four poems he or she has spent a considerable amount of time memorizing, and be gifted by heartfelt recitations of several dozen works of wisdom and beauty by Rumi, Hafiz, Rilke, Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, and other masters, as well as the inspired poets in the room.
On one particular evening, I had memorized two of my own poems, had finally mastered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” using guitar and voice, and had spent a fair amount of time learning Neruda’s great piece entitled simply, “Poetry.”
Intuition is always used to determine who is going to recite next. When a poem ends, there’s a moment of appreciative silence. After that, whoever feels like it’s the right time for his or her piece is invited to step in and simply begin. If two people start speaking simultaneously, courtesy and patience create resolution in seconds.
I had stepped in with the first of my own memorized works, a poem itself titled “Memory,” and in the silence of the audience I had felt a deep resonance. It had peaked as the poem reached a kind of dramatic conclusion. I definitely felt the joy of having been heard and appreciated, of having conveyed the poem from my heart into the 40 or so other gathered hearts.
After the brief, harmonious silence following my poem, I was still basking in joy as a blonde lady across the room began reciting. At first, I only dimly heard her, but her words intrigued me, so I pulled myself out of my reverie.
As she continued, I began to marvel at what she was saying!
“I am stunned by the beauty of the ordinary,
so that sometimes the ordinary seems misnamed…”
I listened to the stream of this reciter’s flowing expressiveness:
“No one is famous to the ordinary,
you can’t impress it.
The ordinary is the real wife of every man,
the real husband of every woman.”
Her voice was like a living river—as was the poem itself, which in fact was, I remembered, titled “The River of Ordinary Moments.” This poet had honed in on some strong subject-matter.
I found the lines exquisite. The only problem I had while listening was that I was beginning to get a little jealous of the poet, and had to keep fighting off that distraction.
After awhile, my listening became one stream and my internal self-talk, a parallel one: “Oooh, that was beautiful. I think I can write that well sometimes, though. I think…,” and, “I wonder who wrote this?” Part of me was becoming impatient to learn the name of this poet. I wanted to be able to find more of his or her work!
The piece seemed to go on for quite awhile. When at last it ended, there was once again a deep, appreciative silence in the room. The speaker had done a perfect job of putting the poem across. The whole piece now resonated in a lovely way inside me. At the same time I remained slightly distracted, waiting for the poet’s name. Finally, the blonde lady announced, “That poem was by Max.”
“What?” I thought, and said aloud. “Are you sure?” Could I have written this and forgotten? Could I really have been jealous of myself?
“Yes,” said the lady, whose name I learned was Kay. “I found it on the PoemHunter website, where you’ve saved a lot of your poems.”
Everyone had a good laugh! Mine was surely the heartiest, replete with all the ironies of the situation that I alone was privy to. When I got home, I looked up the poem. Indeed, I had written it.
I had been placed in the situation of hearing my own piece of work with complete objectivity—utterly unaware who had penned it, until that last moment.
Poems from my pen have met, over the years, with acceptance, publication, and sometimes a certain amount of acclamation. At other times, however, even what I’ve felt to be my best work has fallen on deaf ears. Sharing publicly has often been an ordeal. My “poet’s ego” has often had a hard time.
But that night—ah, that night, it was as if a little play-within-a-play had been arranged by the unseen, to show me: “Hey, boy, you’re ok!”
Note: Larry Robinson, mentioned above, maintains an extraordinary poem-a-day email list which includes poems from the oral tradition evenings, as well as from many additional sources. To receive these daily poems, coming straight from the hearts of some past or present poets, send an email to email@example.com.
image 1: shellorz (Creative Commons BY NC-SA)
image 2: MN Photos (Creative Commons BY NC-ND)