Love Poetry in an Unusual Place: the Bible

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One of the great revelations (if you’ll pardon the word) of my youth was learning that you could read the Bible two ways — one if by religion and two if by literature. Another epiphany (if you’ll pardon a second word, oh good judge) was that the Bible wasn’t always a stodgy read. Who put me on to this? My 87-year-old great aunt.

Yep. As if she were discussing the weather, my devout Aunt Mae once got on the topic of the Good Book, which is really a whole lot of good smaller books. I was showing off by telling her how much I enjoyed reading the King James Version of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. What led me there? Of all things, the less-than-holy book, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Papa had stolen his title from Ecclesiastes one day when he was chasing after wind and rivers returning to the sea. Me, I just wanted to read the source of his catchy title.

Anyway, back to Aunt Mae. She nodded and kindly allowed me my cynical dose-of-reality Old Testament favorite, but then she looked toward the ceiling and waxed poetic on the merits of the Song of Solomon, the book directly following Ecclesiastes‘ hard act to follow. What’s more, when I looked later, I discovered that the Song of Solomon is even shorter than its predecessor. To a teenager, that spells “readable”!

The very night of our discussion, I dove into my KJV again. Whoa! This book was kind of sexy. Well, for the Bible, I mean. The young lovers of the little book that could were in worship mode, I discovered, but mostly about the wonders of love between (pardon us, Percy Sledge) a man and a woman. Metaphors and similes grow like kudzu in Solomon’s catchy tune, too.

For example, let’s cast a poetic eye on 5: 10-16, wherein she speaks of him:

My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.

His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.

His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set.

His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.

His hands are as gold rings set with the beryl: his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires.

His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.

His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.

Followed by 7: 1-9, wherein he returns the favor:

How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.

Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.

Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.

Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.

Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.

How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.

I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples;

And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.

Granted, the figurative language trades in objects and allusions most Biblical–ones sounding a bit foreign to modern ears–but there’s no questioning the ardor heating up these pages. The lyrical poetry is a paean to youth, love, the beauty of God’s human creations. In short, the book serves as early inspiration for a favorite font of poetry (even in months outside of February), love.

My discussion was many decades ago in a city far, far away, but I’ll never forget Aunt Mae’s eyes, how they sparkled clear and young again as she glanced up and momentarily lost herself in praise of this book. Who was she recalling, I wonder? Surely a love from her deep and storied past. Surely a tale I would never hear but could infer, anyway. A story that repeats through the annals of time with an infinite cast of entering and exiting players….

Advice for a Poetry Reading

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Inside of two weeks before my first poetry reading, I often solicit advice from experienced poets who have read many times at many venues. Part of me asks about myself and the poems I should choose. The other part asks about the crowd. Or maybe “the crowd” (accent on quotation marks). What I’ve heard so far:

  1. It’s possible no one will show up. (Do you read to no one if “it” arrives and fills the assembled seats with its nothingness? Does a tree in a forest primeval make a sound if it falls beyond human ears? Discuss. At the mic. Or possibly the mike.)
  2. Crowds can be fidgety. Remember that as you decide on poems for the reading.
  3. Have fun.
  4. Start and end with stronger poems.
  5. Mix types of poems–funny, sad, long, short, reflective, assertive. Repeat and contrast, repeat and contrast.
  6. Introduce each poem with a brief anecdote. Accent on brief.
  7. Have fun.
  8. Don’t read too fast. In fact, you should think you’re reading a bit too slow. That will be about the right pace.
  9. Project and enunciate.
  10. Practice reading your poems beforehand. Not a little. A lot. Especially if you’re a tyro.
  11. Have fun.
  12. If you sell copies of your book (or even a single copy of your book) afterwards, give thanks. It’s gravy. Don’t expect dozens of listeners to beat a path to your signing table.
  13. If you’re featured with another reader, give her/him the option of going first or second.
  14. If your fellow featured reader is the hottest poet since the King James Bible writers, call in sick.
  15. Are we having fun yet?

Tips Picked Up at a Poetry Reading

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I fought Boston traffic (without even broaching the city limits) to reach Salem for a reason. I wanted to learn. Learn by listening to a poetry reading. And learn I did.

In Ocean Vuoung, Sandra Beasley, and Martha Collins, I got three distinct readers and styles for the price of one. This at the 8th annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Here’s what I picked up:

Listeners:

  • Sit in front if you can. As you know from the movies, human heads can be distracting as all get-out.
  • Don’t sit too far to either side unless you want a neck ache.
  • Put your program on the floor, lest it noisily slip off your lap mid-reading as mine did (oops).

Speakers:

  • Ask your introducing host to remind audience members about putting away their binkies (read: cellphones). As in off. In their pockets and out of sight. For the entire reading. (Remember: You’re the good cop. You just get up and read.)
  • Thank everybody, just like the Academy Awards. And don’t forget your fellow speakers (if you have any). You are not worthy (even if you are).
  • Beware oversensitive mics that pick up every dry-mouth lip lick and mouth sound.
  • Speak slowly. This is not the Indy 500. Poetry and checkered flags are a bad mix.
  • Dress relaxed. Feel relaxed. Look relaxed. (And if at all possible, be relaxed.)
  • It’s OK to draw out words a bit in the name of enunciation. Just don’t overdo it. That’s not drawing out in the name of enunciation. That’s drawing out in the name of the rack, a Medieval torture device.
  • Be yourself, even if no one knows who you are. Like dogs sensing fear, listeners sense naturalness (or lack thereof).
  • Keep the context for each poem brief and to the point. Make it interesting.
  • Good humor is always welcome. (Plus the sound of ice cream truck bells sends listeners back.)
  • Don’t be overly dramatic with your gestures, your mouth, your bulging eyes. If listeners start to focus more on your body than your body of work, you’re as cooked as the Cratchit family’s goose.
  • Be sure listeners know when your poem is finished. Without some signal (voice, head bow, looking up while slightly closing book), some endings can be awkward in an “Is That All There Is?” kind of way. Like Wiley Coyote, they just fall off a cliff.
  • Look at the audience now and again. And, hey. There are people to the right and to the left (just like the Do-Nothing Congress), too.

Listeners:

  • Buy a book. Get it signed. Say something nice to the poet. This is a small tribe we live in. We need each other’s support.