Let’s say you don’t “get” poetry: it’s confusing, mysterious, and you struggle to find its relevance to your life. At Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs last Thursday night, I found real practical answers for that condition from which I suffer intermittently.
First, reading or listening to poetry makes you feel better.
For example, let’s say you’re now ready, in early August, to burst into flames watching catatonic visitors make bad fashion statements, or you’re chewing your lip over the zany presidential campaigns, and the horizons of both situations seem to stretch endlessly.
Poetry, at least the variety read by Island muses Fan Ogilvie and Arnie Reisman last week, is a cool bath for your mind. Good poets take us along on their internal journey. We’re paying attention to what’s going on in someone else’s mind for a change.
And good poets fearlessly share their beliefs, feelings. They present well-focused word pictures of the natural world that we can recognize as things we enjoy about life. They see things we don’t see, or those we struggle to articulate. They let us know that they understand personal pain we are experiencing in our lives, that they understand it. Understanding is balm.
Ms. Ogilvie and Mr. Reisman have different styles and poetic ways that contributed to the richness of a poetry reading experience enjoyed by an overflow crowd at Featherstone, sponsors of a poetry reading series this summer. Former West Tisbury librarian and much-decorated novelist and poet Jennifer Tseng is next up on August 16.
Ms. Ogilvie, former West Tisbury poet laureate, was introduced by Justen Ahren, who credited her with expanding the Island literary menu and supporting his Noepe Center for Literary Arts, now a bustling retreat for American writers.
Ms. Ogilvie was up first, with readings from “Easiness Found,” her latest volume of 81 poems arranged in alphabetical order “for no particular reason.”
See, that’s another thing. Poets do stuff for no particular reason. Whimsy. Really, when was the last time you did that?
My favorite is “Kyoto: Morning Glory,” an account of a business trip Ms. Ogilvie took with her husband to a world financial conference in Kyoto, Japan, as part of his work as a financial guy.
She has gone to many of these meetings with him and invariably lost herself in the city. This time, she went to the financial conference, and her poem-story merged financial speak and observation of pre-dawn blooming morning glories.
She includes a rhythmic set of financial terms, an arcanity that has the conference-goers rapt with attention. She understands not a word, leading her to muse ”I could sell their information if only I could speak it.” Whimsy, a disarming device that establishes that this poem has a reportorial aspect. It’s not a sniffy indictment of money people.
“What men and women do without this knowledge
Is most of what men and women do,
Yet what those who are assembled here know and do
goes to why and how and where and when
Men and women do what they do or don’t do,
Even to the planting of morning glories.”
Mr. Reisman is an ebullient literary jihadist who’s got chops in all kinds of media: documentaries, reporting, playwriting, authoring, and poetry. He is the Island’s official poet laureate, and has been a regular on “Says You!” a long-running NPR brainy game show.
Mr. Reisman’s poetic approach is varied, can be thoughtful and gentle or obstreperous. In the latter case, he often shows up like a master snowball fighter: throw the first one up high, and while they’re watching it, plug ‘em with the next one. Except he uses words to make his point.
Take “Sodom and Costello,” the title of his latest book that includes a poem of the same title. At first it makes you think “Oh boy, we’ll get the skinny on civilization’s oldest Sin Cities.” Then you think: “Wait! … Sodom and COSTELLO? What’s going on here?” Well, he’s blended a 4,000-year-old biblical legend with two guys from the Catskills.
And now he’s got us. He mixes familiar and completely unrelated names and phrases. Sodom and Costello. We can’t scan it, but it’s kinda funny and he has our attention.
Then he plugs us:
“In a world of mixed signals
I’m a substitute at the switchboard
Trying desperately to recall
Is it the green wire or the red wire?
If Tab A will not fit into Slot B
Am I allowed to use brute force?”
He builds on it with verses like:
“A veil lifted from my eyes
A door opened in my mid
It’s all funny ha-ha, funny peculiar, all the same
Venality, carnality, what did it matter?
Relaxed, I slouched towards conclusions
There were clowns in my coffee, clowns in my coffee”
Dear reader, I’d tell you that you can’t make this stuff up, but Mr. Reisman did and it works.
Quite something, this poetry business.
“Easiness Found” and “Sodom and Costello” are available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven and at local libraries.