My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer used to insist that poetry was supposed to be heard. He proved it many times, booming out his verse at bardic circles around the Bay Area and science fiction conventions across North America. His position was a welcome reminder, but I had learned its truth while I was in university during a single magical day.
At the time, I was serious about poetry, writing and publishing regularly, and theorizing about metrics in the little time left over from my academic classes. I was skeptical about the poetic establishment (as any young poet should be), and sure I was going to shake it up (and never be one of those academic poets who taught for a living). When my friend Stuart announced a garden party during which his new poem, a Georgian pastoral, would be read, I quickly took on the voice of the Young Man in the poem.
The day of the reading was one of those hard, bright days that the Lower Mainland sometimes gets in summer. The setting was the garden of Stuart’s parents, which softened the harshness of the day with a mixture of strategic shade and explosions of flowers. Among the guests were Stuart’s girlfriend of the moment and her younger sister of sixteen, as well as my high school English teacher, who lived a few houses down.
I was proud to be taking part and doing my bit to take poetry out of the class room. Aided by a few glasses of wine, I read my part in increasingly rolling tones, like an out of control Laurence Olivier without the talent, intoxicated more by my own self-importance than the alcohol. As always happens when I start reciting poetry, I felt myself taken over by the poetry, and I floated through the rest of the party with a lingering sense of excitement.
But that wasn’t all. When Stuart drove his girlfriend and her sister to catch the ferry to Nanaimo, I went with them. Since we had missed one ferry, we stopped at West Vancouver’s miniature Parthenon.
The place was some millionaire’s folly, with a small temple built on a headland and some credible copies of Classical Greek statues. People used to stop at the first rest stop after the ferry to look down on it and take photos of it with their telephoto lenses and to marvel of the incongruity of the place in the middle of the rain forest.
It’s long gone now, divided into subdivisions after the owner’s death. In fact, it was being dismantled when we visited, the statues hauled from their plinths and a couple of the temple’s columns blackened by fire. Yet, in a way, the ruined splendor added to the attraction. We slipped past the No Trespassing signs in the growing dark, and were soon standing on the plinths, reciting bits of Stuart’s poem, our words booming off the cliffs that ringed the temple on most of its landward side.
For a while, I worried that the sound would bring the police down on us, especially since we were waving bottles of beer and hard cider as we declaimed. I was worrying, too, about how I might get the sister’s phone number before she boarded the ferry. But the sound of our voices was so impressive that I soon forgot such considerations.
Suddenly, the ruins and rocky cliffs reminded me of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” I began reciting it by heart, the sound of my voice much improved by the echoes off the cliffs. I remember experimenting with various pitches, completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of the words rolling through the air around me.
It must have been almost as impressive to the others as it was to me, because when I was done, everyone was silent for a moment, and began praising my delivery. Even I recognized that nothing could follow Coleridge’s masterpiece, and that it was clearly time to go.
I don’t remember dropping off the women, or returning to my parent’s house an hour or so later. But I do remember enthusing to Stuart about the importance of hearing poetry, and turning off the light that night, still glowing from the glory of the sound in the temple. That, I decided, was how poetry should be heard, and I fell asleep full of plans to save the place as a park so that others could enjoy what I had. It was only next morning that I realized I had forgot to get the sister’s phone number, and, even then, I was still so light-headed from the experience that I only minded a little.