Poets Behind Podiums & the Pulse of Words Spoken

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died this week, at the austere age of 101. To reach a century mark — in any century — is astounding. To do so as part of the bohemian Beat Generation … well, extra jazz snaps for that.

I met Ferlinghetti many years ago when he came to speak and read at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was an alumnus, I was a student; we were 40 years apart, both journalism majors. I was serving on the university’s speaker series committee, the group responsible for selecting, inviting and hosting luminaries from diverse fields of interest — politics, the arts, entertainment, sports and science. It’s been another 40 year-span between now and then, so I can’t reel off the entire slate of speakers we booked, but I do remember the poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Maya Angelou.

Ferlinghetti would have been the age I am now when he came to campus. (Funny, isn’t it, how we seek the frailest connections to our heroes? A shared birthday, a place in common, a left-handed scrawl …)

He seemed quiet, polite and shy. Unassuming, until he took long-legged strides to the stage and opened his earmarked books. And then he read with a sort of Sunday morning reverence, gravely-voice rising and whispering in turn. I recall being struck by the intensity of his eyes, and thinking he looked a bit like Mick Fleetwood. It may have been the hat.

Years later, when my daughter and her boyfriend piled into a van for a cross-country trip out west that would include a San Francisco stop, I made them promise me they’d visit the literary landmark of Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. If you’re embarking on an On the Road-style expedition, it seemed a fitting pilgrimage to make. They were true to their word and brought me back a souvenir tee-shirt and copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

I have long been intrigued with the Beat writers — Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac. When I learned that Kerouac’s sister Nin had lived near my North Carolina hometown, and that he had stayed with her there to write and meditate and shake off the vagabond dust, I made my own pilgrimage to find the house. It was small and nondescript, circled by a creek he called Buddha Creek, in a community known as Big Easonburg Woods, right around the corner from the country store where we would buy beer in high school. This is where he wrote Dharma Bums, I remember thinking, this tired place, my place.

Maya Angelou was, as you’d expect, larger than life, and more pop culture accessible than Ferlinghetti. A fellow student and I were tasked with escorting her about campus, from the Carolina Inn to the venue for sound checks, etc. Once we had completed the tour, she turned to us and asked, in that unmistakable, reverberant voice, “Is there somewhere we might go for a glass of wine?” Well, yes, Ms. Angelou, I think that can be arranged! And the three of us ended up sharing a bottle and swapping stories — a uneven swap meet if ever there was one. She had the stories. We were the rapt, tongue-tied audience of two bookish geeks.

Years later, a young colleague of mine with dramatic aspirations performed “Phenomenal Woman” in my living room, with all the hip-rolling swagger and sashay the poem deserves. My son, five at the time and sitting cross-legged on the floor, looked up at me wide-eyed after the final stanza. “I’m going to marry her!” he said. Yes, son. We should all strive to find phenomenal partners who are moved by the arc and art and aspiration of poetry.

And again, years later, I became a speechwriter. I began to see the connection between poetry and oratory, performance and prose. The best speeches rely on the craft fundamentals of poetry — meter, rhythm, metaphor and crystallized message. They must read well on the page, but spiral and sing when spoken. They need to fit and slip from the tongue of the speaker. They are both the strictest of forms and the freest of verse.

But there’s more it, I believe, as I think back on Ferlinghetti and Angelou behind the podium. A speaker worth his speaking fee ably and engagingly tells his story; and, if he’s good, connects his story with your story. Poetry conveys the personal universally. It distills lofty thoughts into lines that resonate, and are remembered, recited and revered. Views and images and ideas that cause us to sway in our seats and in our thinking.

Poetry is meant to be read aloud. It has tempo and inflection and emotion that deserves to be heard. And the best readers to do that, of course, are the poets themselves, the writers who have spoken and broken the words many times over, cutting and recasting until the lines are fine.

Hearing poets read makes us want to write … or paint or dance, bake banana bread or build skyscrapers. It motivates us, makes us cry and sigh and travel backcountry roads to find a clapboard cairn in the woods. It connects all of the ‘years later’ memories, like wooden beads on a string. It combines Aristotle’s principles of rhetoric — ethos, pathos and logos — more effectively and inspirationally than mere punditry or prose.

And I suppose that’s why I remember meeting Ferlinghetti so long ago.

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