A Turn for Verse at Cafe Voltaire

Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

The white-haired gentleman read a simple poem about his travels in Mexico.

The middle-aged fellow noted before reading that his poem was actually written for his daughter's 21st birthday. This was useful to know, as his "Poem as Be-bop for Kristin" contained no obvious reference to the occasion and the contour of his verse was as jagged as the syntax of be-bop jazz itself, with internal riffs not by Charlie Parker but by T.S. Eliot and Rimbaud--"the French Rimbaud," he'd also note.

The young hepcat wearing shades testified about his beleaguered mother in a poem that introduced his sister as "my-father-whom-I'd-never-met's-daughter."

The intense, black-haired, black-cloaked woman hurled vivid images--"a gray dove, soft and silent as ash"--in short lines depicting solace, isolation, regret.

A very young woman wearing a bright yellow and lime hat studded with mesh flowers recited stanzas built for the refrain "I'm convinced it's love." The things that convinced her it was love were: "We both own a copy of 'Harold & Maude' " and "He lets me pop the zits on his back."

One woman rose to read but never quite got to it. Instead she "happened" in a great whooshing, speeding, omni-directional riff. It indicted Christianity for trading on icons of idealized visions of women while saving the power deities for men (even if they are hunky, "touchable" ones like St. Sebastian). She would ultimately get the hook for taking too much time, but not before discussing her unrelenting heterosexuality (a gift), Nixon (a jerk), Whitney Houston (a concept), and "declawed radio" in the form of NPR (a godsend).

Less effusive was the young man who invoked darkness in lines that fell as bluntly as his images. His poem titled "Heather" led off with "It hit the floor/the slap of heavy guts" and ended with "the guts stink." Brightening things up a bit, he then read a one-line poem he credited to an unnamed writer: "The man went off into the night to do just that."

With that, he paused and looked at the rapt audience.

"Isn't that cool?" he asked.

It is poetry night at Cafe Voltaire, in The Livery, downtown. This goes on every Thursday: word pilgrims arriving to testify, naming their feelings with spoken English, standing up one at a time to face 40 or so others to expose the innermost.

Poetry does this to people. It always has.

It's older than written words. It's from the ancient oral world in which people, warmed and illuminated by fires, spoke in rhythms and rhymes in such a way as to elevate a feeling, spotlight a discovery, intone a belief. Poetry has taken us far: through joy, grief, birth, death, evolution, devolution, love, hate.

Today's poems operate at many levels, from the banal and the affronting to the inspired and transcendant. At their roughest, they talk randomly of mere events. At their best, they contain a string of only those words that magically telegraph, with explosive power, real insight. Mark Twain troubled his whole life with finding just the right words, because he felt "the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." Ka-BOOM.

Hence the silence at these open-mike sessions. People want to hear what people must say in the words they've committed to paper. Phil Taggard, the poet who emcees and sometimes reads at these public readings, is plain about the sense of destiny stand-up poets have. "I do it because I have to," he says. "I have to do it. I have to put myself out there. It's a need."

If writing and reading poetry is a survival need as basic as food, no one could have made it clearer on this recent Thursday than Robert R. Reinhart, by day a Mercedes-Benz mechanic in Westlake but by all other hours a miner picking away to find that spot where the emotions and intelligence collide: in a word-jewel, or poem.

Reinhart's work is marked by economy and precision in the use of English and derives power from that. But Reinhart also has an eye for the telling metaphor, most fittingly of all on the subject of the elusive poem itself:

It is crying for you

like a kitten born under the house,

but you cannot find it,

so you listen

and you listen

and you beat the keys

a little harder

praying that you can free the words. "

On a Thursday night in Ventura, amid all the other word pilgrims, he did just that.

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