Photo: Thomas Michael Alleman
"Everything indicates - the smallest does, and the largest does..."
~ excerpts from Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Ahoy! What a week I've had. Whitman provides the refrain for a string of days, rich in parts that furnish themselves toward the soul. That would be my soul, certainly, but also the eternal human soul. At each turn, I've witnessed reminders that a common experience envelops us all. Our personal details may vary at the surface, but beneath it all, we are akin. We are pilgrims driven by the same rough quests and questions, dreams and dread, losses and longings, heroics and humbled awe.
Ah, but how do we get beneath, to that subcutaneous space populated by passions great and small? My trick is poetry. It holds at bay the guardian dogs of logic just long enough for feeling to take the dance floor. We are always naked in the presence of a true poem.
And so where have I been stripping down and with whom? In high schools and senior centers, around dinner tables and upon public works projects. Yes, actually.
Take a peek at the week:
I had the pleasure of spending a day with students in Santa Rosa, whose school will begin competing in the national high school recitation competition, Poetry Out Loud, which was created by poet and past National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia. He was kind enough to ask me to share the stage and join him in illustrating the pleasure of memorization. Pouring a poem inside is a transformative experience in and of itself. But then, oh the sublime exchange of tipping it back out through your voice into another person, after bits and pieces of your story have attached themselves to the contours of each line and stanza. It's such a thrill.
Having the chance to engender a yen for that sensation with these teens was tremendous enough. Making things even richer for me, though, was the bonus of seeing in the audience a half -dozen members of a poetry gathering that I host at a nearby assisted living center. Each week, these remarkable souls and I meet as an ersatz family and bond through verses. Looking out at the faces of the teens and the faces of my friends in their eighties and nineties, the notion that poetry has the power to thread us together across time, space, culture, and circumstance, has never felt more tangible. The fact that words written thousands of years ago were visibly touching people born tens of decades apart was profoundly affecting for all of us present.
"It is not you alone, nor I alone; Not a few races, nor a few generations, nor a few centuries..."
The discovery of a poem can feel like stumbling upon a message in a bottle, one sent only to you. Discovering that others are decanting under the same spell -- even if in their own unique way -- is radically cool. This was the idea behind a series of dinners that my buddy Ben and I have been organizing over the past year. These gatherings vibe on the free-flow of vino and verse. They are as fun as they are deep. And they disprove Auden's famous line: "Poetry makes nothing happen."
Two quite beautiful things have come about thanks to these "happenings." One is a love story. At last Saturday's dinner (#5 in the series), our friend read a poem she had written to her love. She was sharing it with him for the first time and doing so in front of the rest of us. May I say that it was gorgeous, knowing, and totally radiant declaration. How perfect, he explained after catching his breath, the poem itself and also the setting, as their romance had really started heating up at poetry dinner #1. A little credit to the muses please.
The second thing is a book -- a book of poems and images inspired by the Bay Bridge. As a sidelight to dinner #2 Ben, Elissa, and I conspired to organize a local poet's tour of this engineering marvel to see what would happen. The result is now captured in a collection we've entitled "EVERYTHING INDICATES" which we hope will be but one element in an outpouring of creative community response to this amazing and essential feat of engineering and human collaboration. In fact, I've just come home from a meeting of 20 + artists, designers, and community activists, all inspired by the notion of harnessing the bridge's energy to uncork a celebration of all that connects us. We are embarking. Jump on.
Art offers a key to the mystery of human experience. You are the opening. You signify. "Great or small, your furnish your parts toward the soul."