The song that is the city

Dec 7, 2005 at 12:00 am

A city that fails to listen to its poets doesn’t know the sound and song of its own heartbeat. Here in Detroit, there’s no shortage of poets who can be found reading their work from the stage — in coffeehouses, bars and art galleries. At its best, to hear a poet read, to listen to the poem lifted up from the white space of the page, is nothing less than a form of singing.

So why do I so often find myself standing in one of these venues — in a small room, really — filled with only a dozen or so others who have tuned their ears into such music? Detroit-born-and-raised poet John Rybicki has a poem called “At the Reading,” in which he summons awake a world where poetry matters to the masses:

“I want a billboard of me lit up/ by a helicopter, traffic backed up/ in one long tongue of metal. People will climb to/ their car roofs as I rappel down to my reading,/ shoving my fist through that billboard,/ knocking my own teeth out.” Later in the poem, Rybick tells us, “People will go around mummified by poetry./ Wherever you are in you, I want to wake you up,/ find a gold horn in your bones/ and blow a fine blue spread right through you.”

How is it that such a writer as Gertrude Stein used to tour the country lecturing in auditoriums, not simply small “rooms”? People brought themselves there to listen to Stein, one of our most experimental writers, speak in her highly unconventional Steinese — repetitive, recursive, resonant language. It would be easy to blame it on the arrival of the iPod, although indifference to poetry cuts much deeper.

Most of us long to hear something other than the static hum in our own heads. Why not listen to poetry, to that music where the only instrument is the bare bones of language itself? Are words simply not enough? Do most of us have better things to do on a Monday or a Wednesday night than go out to an art gallery, to hear poets give to us that most private part of their hearts?

Zeitgeist Gallery is in the shadow of a now-abandoned sports stadium where another sort of poetry once played itself out — not with the gnawed-down wood of a No. 2 pencil, but with the precisely-crafted lumber of a bat and the perfect hump of the pitcher’s mound serving as a podium. Zeitgeist is a place where, once a month, usually on a Wednesday night, I sit in the railroad-style barroom, not to get drunk on cheap wine but to drink in the sweet serum of poetry.

These words are my personal invitation to whoever is reading them. Walt Whitman once wrote in his great poem, Song of Myself: “Whoever you are holding this book, know that you are holding in your hands the heart of a man.”

Take yourself to Zeitgeist Dec. 14 to hear the words, to listen and feel the heartbeat of a longtime Detroit poet. Mick Vranich, whose most recent books include Saw Horse, published by Doorjamb Press in 1999, and Boxer’s Break, issued by Past Tents Press more than a decade earlier, is a poet whose writing is driven by the knowledge that “now is already gone.”

I’ll be the guy sitting at the end of the bar with eyes closed and head tilted down to be that much closer to the place where my own heart is hiding, where my own heart is beating away, as if to re-remind myself that there are things in this life, the tiniest of moments — like the moon rising out of the river, like a poem rising off the page — that are not to be missed.


Mick Vranich and James LaCroix read on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at Zeitgeist Gallery, 2661 Michigan Ave. Detroit, less than one mile west of old Tiger Stadium; 313-965-9192. Doors at 8:00 p.m.

In another inspired event, New Orleans poets are bringing poetry and blues to the Motor City. Kalamu ya Salaam, Arthur Pfister and John Sinclair and His Blues Scholars are joined by Detroit’s own Cajun son and WSU professor-emeritus/poet Alvin Aubert and longtime godfather of Detroit poetry M.L. Liebler and his Magic Poetry Band featuring the legendary horn-playing of Faruq Z. Bey. 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 7, in the Community Arts Auditorium on Wayne State University’s campus, Detroit. Call 313-577-7713 for more info.

Peter Markus is a poet whose recent book is The Singing Fish. Send comments to [email protected]