By Therese Nolan
The messages of great poems to each man and woman
Come to us on equal terms,
Only then can you understand us.
We are no better than you...what we enjoy you may
--WALT WHITMAN, from
the preface to Leaves of Grass
In the recent
movie Dead Poets Society, several young men discover new ways of looking
at life through the poetry of Keats, Shelley, and Lord Byron. They hide in a
cave and practice the lost art of reading poetry aloud to each other.
In a cave of a different sort-- a dimly lit bar near
the Ohio State campus--this tradition is carried on by an informal society of
poets in what's called "The Poetry Forum at Larry's".
Many of the featured readers at the poetry forum are
from the faculties of Ohio colleges and universities. Some have jobs flying
Medivac helicopters for the National Guard, working with the homeless, or
teaching retarded children. Others are also editors, graduate students, and high
school teachers. One reader is a psychiatric technician at Harding Hospital;
another, a retired librarian. Over the years at least three readers have been
drawn from the ranks of the WOSU Stations: Fred Andrle, John McGrody, and Mary
What do they have in common? Nearly all have been
published in one or more of the multitude of poetry magazines across the
country. They all deal in words. And concentrated awareness. And the glory of
creating an emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm. The 19th
century poet Wordsworth grounded poetry in emotion. "Poetry is the
spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling: it takes its origin from emotion
recollected in tranquility." One hundred years later, Carl Sandburg related
it to a sense of mystery and awe. "Poetry is a search for syllables to
shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom
script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away."
Poets can be like rainbows. Difficult to pin down.
Seldom seen. Ephemeral. Usually the quest is to find the poet within the person.
Larry's Poetry Forum has been a proven success at bringing out people for the
poets, and bringing out the poet in people. It has created its own gold mine of
talent while attracting top regional word artists. "It fills a void,"
says forum coordinator Linda Smith. "I like that it takes place in a
bar--it's more relaxed." During intermission, audience members can sign up
to read after the scheduled poet. Each "open reader" is allowed five
minutes or two poems. Several who 'auditioned' through this process were later
given their own berth as a featured writer.
Forum coordinators strive to strike a balance between
regional poets whose readings boost attendance and local poets who are
progressing and benefit from an audience. David Citino, a well-known local poet
and a member of the Ohio State English faculty, feels the poetry forum has
helped him and others because it "gives people an opportunity to share
their work. It's very important that the readings are off-campus. Poetry does
not just take place in a classroom, but in the neighborhoods of a city. Larry's
has made a difference in my career, and I'm grateful to those who run it."
Sixth Annual Poetry Contest for central Ohio residents closes for submissions on
January 31, and a winner will be announced during the month of February. The
winner will automatically be a featured reader in the spring and ill have a poem
included in Larry's Poetry Review. The forum publication, in its third
volume, was first printed in 1986.
The poetry forum is now in its sixth year. The schedule
of readings runs from fall through spring, nearly parallel to the Ohio State
quarter system. There are 33 weekly readings per year on Mondays at 7 p.m. It is
run by a committee of eight volunteers, roughly split between academic and
non-academic vocations, and an advisory board. Featured poets can only return
every other year. Other readings have been structured around themes such as the
Dead Poets Night, readings of the Poet Laureates, Human Rights Poetry, Goethe,
Hispanic-American Poetry, and Contemporary Irish Poets. An eagerly anticipated
February theme night is the appearance of the Spirit-Drama Society, an acclaimed
performance group from the Ohio State Black Studies Department that is
coordinated by Mary Ann Williams.
Kathy Fagan, a recently appointed member of the English
faculty at Ohio State, read on January 8. Another faculty member, Ellin Carter,
read January 22. Gordon Grigsby and Citino have also been featured. While Ohio
State may contribute heavily in terms of interested faculty members, alumni,
graduate and undergraduate students, it is in no way directly involved and does
not officially promote the series. The lack of recognition bothers some forum
committee members, but the separation of town and gown helps in at least one
major way, enabling the forum to gain financial support from the Ohio Arts
According to Bob Fox of the Ohio Arts Council, Larry's
Poetry Forum has, since its inception, received some financial support. It is
the only organization of its type in the area to have asked for and received
funding. Fox knows of two similar programs in Ohio: the Cedar Lounge in
Youngstown and Arnold's in Cincinnati. The council wants Larry's to serve as an
alternative to campus readings and finds that an independent organization often
results in different poetry. As Fox puts it, "Colleges and universities
just do a type of writer and usually only for the campus community. This group
is not part of the academic mainstream and is accessible at an off-campus
setting. This provides the community with an opportunity. It also can reach
people who just came in for a drink."
converse is also true. People who come for the poetry often buy drinks (coffee
and tea are also available). That's one reason Larry's owner and proprietor
gladly donates the space. Says Larry (whose last name is Paoletti) regarding the
beginning of the poetry forum six years ago: "To everyone's surprise, it
was a success."
There is no cover charge at the readings, although a
hat is passed for donations. The cap in question has a special significance in
itself. It once belonged to William J Redding, a respected poet and committee
member who recently died. Redding's poems, this time read by his many friends
and admirers, will be featured in a tribute on February 26.
In a way, Redding is the perfect example of the sort of
independent poet that Larry's Forum attracts. Redding received his bachelor's
and master's degrees in English and a master's in Library Science from the
Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He traveled abroad, edited various
publications, and was most recently with the Creative Services Division of Ross
Labs. His work has been published over the last 40 years in such journals as Points,
Merlin (Paris), and The New Yorker. His wife and son have selected
poems for the February 26 reading.
Redding, like many others, was attracted to the poetry
forum nearly from the beginning. The original organizers in 1984 were Cheryl
Abdullah and John Cropp, who have since married. Cheryl served as the first
coordinator. Steve Abbott, a founding and current committee member, took over
coordinator responsibilities for 1985-86. Looking back on the experience, Abbott
says he is amazed at the quality of poets who have been available to the
organizers. "there's an exceptional community of writers at (Ohio)
While Ohio's best actors, dancers, and musicians are
able to ply their art before theater audiences of hundreds or thousands, poets
traditionally require more intimate audiences. That makes Larry's a near-perfect
setting--the most deliberately casual of campus bars. You can even bring your
dog to Larry's, a nicety seldom permitted on this side of the Atlantic. At Kathy
Fagan's recent reading, a dog (not hers) lounged at her feet while she read. In
fact, the only species unwelcome at Larry's are frat rats and undergraduate
Fagan is unqualified in her praise of the opportunities
the forum allows. "All poetry should be read aloud, but not necessarily by
its writer. Poetry is as much, if not more, an oral art as a written one.
"Reading her own poetry gives Fagan "a bad case of nerves," she
says, "but if the crowd is responsive I learn what works best orally, what
doesn't, where a poem might drag. While writers do their best work, their only
real work, in solitude, one can't help but benefit by the insights of an
audience as talented and intelligent as the one at Larry's."
Talented and intelligent in her own right, Fagan has
established herself very quickly in her career as a poet. Her first book, The
Raft, won the 1985 National Poetry Series Open Competition and was published
by E.P. Dutton that year. Her work has appeared in Antaeus, Poetry, The
Missouri Review, The Antioch Review, Ploughshares, and Quarterly West,
and in the anthologies Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets, New
Voices, and Piecework. She received her M.F.A. from Columbia and her
Ph.D. from the University of Utah. Now that she is teaching creative writing at
Ohio State, Fagan wants her pupils to benefit from the opportunity of
participating in the forum. "It underscores or reaffirms what is said in
class. I wish there were more opportunities like this. Often students ask how
they can get their poems published, without having read them aloud even to
themselves." One of Fagan's students did follow her advice during the open
Fellow poet and faculty member Ellin Carter agrees that
students need to test their material. Carter has been teaching and writing
poetry for over 15 years. She also wrote a poetry column for the Columbus
Dispatch for five years and has coordinated the Women's Poetry
Workshop for 13 years. Her poems have appeared in the Hiram Poetry Review, the
CEA Critic, Manhattan Poetry Review, Tendril, Anima, and the Women's
Quarterly Review. Anthologies include I name Myself Daughter
and It Is Good, Saturday's Women, and The Poet's Job: To Go Too
Far. In 1986, she received a citation from the Ohioana Library Association
for her contribution to literature.
Carter feels the open readings serve that important
function of testing material. Here you see all ages and all races. The mix of
these readers is quickly evident. The obviously elderly rub elbows with the
wet-behind-the-ears. Over the past six years, poets as young as 10 and into
their 80's have been included.
A young woman from Australia reads a poem about
visiting her sister there. An obnoxious self-aggrandizer sputters profanities to
get his 15 seconds of attention. At least one male struts his stuff in hopes of
attraction a sensitive female to his intelligence. Timid teens hide out in
booths, ordering Cokes and laughing nervously at the blue words.
It's Monday evening at Larry's Poetry Forum. The
audience is ready, and words come tumbling out.