One of my circles of friends pivots around a fortnightly gathering of poetry aficionados. Held Friday nights in the lower-level apartment of the host couple, the gathering is informally called the Poetry Cellar. Unlike the open mics I attend Wednesday nights with the Poetic Underground, most of the material presented in the Cellar comes from the corpus of published poets past and present.
There are a handful of people I can expect to see every time the group meets. There is a much larger cadre who attend most of the time, and whose absence we feel when they are not there. And there are friends and acquaintances who move in and out of our orbit like comets.
The gathering has its own ritual.
Poetry starts at midnight.
Our hosts, Alan and Aunna, open their home at 10 o’clock. Guests trickle in. It’s BYOB with libations and potent potables. Conversation bounces between the profound and the frivolous, the shallow and the deep, mostly involving friends enjoying each others’ company. Alan plays an eclectic selection of music, some of which always elicits a “Wow! I haven’t heard that tune in ages!” response from somebody.
On a small table in the dining nook a glass bowl sits with a dwindling collection of small buttons. Not buttons that get sewn on clothing. These are the kind with slogans on the obverse and pins on the reverse that secure the button temporarily to a pocket or lapel. These are not campaign buttons or political propaganda. On the front of these buttons are single, random words,: nouns, verbs, adjectives.
Any guest is free to take a button. Or two.
During my first visit to the Cellar after receiving a severe electrical shock at work I found a pin that read Jolt. I found it funny, in a gallows sort of way. Over the past month or more some visitors took to fishing out pairs of words from the bowl and arranged them so the juxtaposition broadcast some meaningful phrase. These were usually puerile double entendres. Things like pairing hard with bone or blue with ball. Competition to find the crudest, most creative combinations kept us in stitches.
This past Friday I chose a button bearing the word toast. It amused me. I clipped it to the medical brace that my spine doctor insisted I wear, and completely forgot about it.
Sunday morning I was at the altar rail at the Cathedral, receiving the Eucharistic host—that is, the bread—and brought it cupped in my hands to my mouth. When I lowered my chin to consume the morsel the nickel-sized yellow button screaming TOAST caught my eye.
Perhaps I blushed. I wasn’t toasted at the time. As soon as I returned to my pew I palmed the button and slipped it into my pocket. I needn’t have bothered. No one that entire morning had mentioned it or asked me about it. We Episcopalians are such an accepting lot. Still …
Eventually the laughter and catching up and playing word games with buttons had to come to an end.
The final musical selection is always Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows. This is the signal to shut off cell phones, wind down conversations, finish that shaggy dog, and gather in the circle of folding chairs provided in the living room.
For half an hour people stand to read whatever poetry they have brought to the event. There is no set order, no sign-up sheet, no preset theme. Whoever has something to share does so as the Muse leads. This past week there were several selections by the recently departed Seamus Heaney.
The poems people bring intrigue me. I am persuaded that their selections are telling us something about themselves. I am not always certain what it is—nor whether the face they’re showing is a carefully chosen mask or some layer of their true face. Or both.
Last Friday I brought Dylan Thomas’ A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London. The time before that I had found Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode.
Earlier in the summer, pursuant a conversation I had with Aunna, I went on a jag of finding English translations of ancient poems—poetry from the dawn of history—Sumerian and Egyptian, Assyrian and Hebrew. I was seeking kernels of thematic universality. Humans write a lot about love, sex, and death.
I asked Alan once what had got him interested in poetry. This group, it seems, has existed in one form or another for a long, long time. He told me that reading it he found how richly it expressed those universal themes, that it was a window into the heart of human experience.
I have so much to learn about the genre. I could never find the time to read the volume of poetry that some of my PC friends read. (That’s Poetry Cellar, not “Politically Correct”.) I barely have the patience to read anything, anymore.
Still, I make a point of finding something that speaks to me before each meeting and practicing it a few times. I’m a pretty good sight reader. I’ve competed in Oral Interpretation of Literature and Extemporaneous Speaking. But these folks are too skilled for me just to wing it without embarrassing myself.
Lights out. At half past midnight comes my favorite part of the evening—though I have but infrequently had any contributions. Alan extinguishes all the lights in the room. For the next half hour people recite poems they have memorized.
The wide range of poetry—some of it quite lengthy—which members of this group have memorized continuously astounds me. Not only have they memorized it, they have embodied it. It saturates their being and spills over like Niagara filling a chalice.
Once upon a time I memorized material. I was a Theatre major. I performed on stage. I can still recite most of the Gettysburg address I learned in 4th grade, and Shakespearean soliloquies Mrs. Sandy Katz required I learn in high school.
But some time in college I had the epiphany that rote memorization was less important than knowing where to access information. My power of memorization began deteriorating.
I want to get back to it.
It looks fun.