Are you old enough to remember pop rocks? The candy that suddenly popped and fizzed in your mouth? It wasn’t around for very long, but it was an intriguing idea. You put something sweet in your mouth, and it went off and did its own thing. For me, that’s what poetry does.
We belong to an oral tradition poetry group that used to meet in a tightly-packed crowd in a private living room four or five times a year to spend about three hours (with a break) listening to each other share poetry from memory. That was the only rule: no reading, you must have taken it into your body and mind before sharing. Now some of us are meeting in the open air in a circle of benches adjacent to a lovely country church, and we’re doing it every two weeks. It’s soul food.
I know a lot of people think poetry’s not for them, but it makes a difference when it’s something you hear spoken from the heart, not find silent on a page. For one thing, it takes a little longer. It allows the time for popping and fizzing, and it’s also graced by the essential pheromones of each speaker. No, you’re not close enough to smell them, but that’s the effect.
Sometimes what’s spoken is something new to you, and that’s its own fizz. And sometimes it’s something nearly everyone already knows, and there’s that special whump when the first words land and you know what’s coming. When I hear “I went out to the hazel wood,” tears spring into my eyes, because I know where we’re going: “The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.” And the time it takes to get there is filled with the extra savor of those well-known words, spoken by someone who loves them enough to share.
Or this: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .” It is rushing and tumbling toward the time we are in now, and there is something both painful and comforting that it was seen so clearly a hundred and one years ago. Painful, because it feels true, and comforting, because we are still here to try to learn to see.
Nowadays it’s seen in live concerts when a singer hits the first notes of the crowd’s favorite: everybody erupts in a yell because they know what they’re about to hear, and they really want it. It must be baked into us from the times when we gathered around the fire to hear the bard sing. It creates an instant circle of high-amperage connection.
Today, hate is doing this. It’s good to remember that it’s not the only thing that does.