Old ladies prefer love poems. They stand frozen on the sidewalk staring into space as though listening to faraway music, letting Colin McIlvoy’s spoken imagery wash over them like whispered compliments.
To a 60ish woman wearing a purple hat, he reads the Margaret Atwood charmer “Variations on the Word Love":
... This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their
The woman announces that her knees are weak.
“Read it again,” she says. “Once is not enough.”
McIlvoy knows his audience. He knows that mothers and daughters like nature themes and will wait quietly through a five-stanza walk in the woods. He knows young radicals want shock treatment, outlaw verse with hip-hop immediacy. Hammer me, they say, with a bruising blow. Or an insult.
And McIlvoy complies. On days off from a community organizing job, the 20-year-old New Mexico native packs a dozen dog-eared tomes into an oblong red toolbox and takes to the street. He assumes a spot in a middle-class neighborhood called West Portal Village, just over the hill but a world away from counterculture Haight-Ashbury, where poets and philosophers rule the roost.
Outside a Charles Schwab brokerage office, he posts a sign announcing that all his offerings are free. Then he patiently solicits passersby to disengage from their cellphones and big-city routines and appreciate an all-but-forgotten public art form.
“Like to hear a poem?” he asks. “It’s not a very long poem.”
People pass as though hypnotized, their eyes downcast, shoulders tense. A few make eye contact, but most shake their heads.
“You sure?” he says to a dog-walker. “How can you turn down free poetry?”
“No time,” the man says.
“I’m very, very busy,” says a woman in a stoplight-red jacket.
One person in 10 stops, like the lady with a leopard-skin purse who pauses for Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks.”
As McIlvoy reads, he looks up to catch the woman’s eye, sharing a private moment on a public street, before resubmerging into the ocean of words:
The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.
“That’s lovely,” she says.
The troubadour sees opportunity. “Want to hear another?”
She hesitates. “Why are you doing this?”
“No one reads poetry anymore,” he responds. “I want people to have poetry in their day. It’s a hobby. People build model airplanes. I read poems.”
He writes them as well. But McIlvoy -- who calls himself Mack -- never reads his own work. Instead, on an average day, he’ll read 40 poems by contemporary stylists such as John Updike, Billy Collins, Rebecca Bagget and Heather McHugh.
McIlvoy is no poetry jukebox. He reads poems he likes. Sometimes he’ll even offer to feed a listener’s parking meter to win a few more moments. He takes the occasional request, like from the woman who asks: “Hey, you got something to do with wisdom? I need a wisdom fix.”
There’s no artistic pretense to McIlvoy’s poetry performances -- no pseudo-beatnik berets or bohemian dress. He drives a decidedly un-hip white Oldsmobile with Illinois plates his grandmother willed him. He wears Oxford shirts, and his hair is cut schoolboy short. Many people assume he’s a missionary.
Sometimes, the poet hits his mark -- as he does with the woman who rushes past mumbling before wheeling about to hear two poems.
“I can’t believe I just said ‘No’ to a poem,” confesses Cecelia Wambach. The college math teacher is leaving for Prague and is crazy with final details. But how can anyone, she asks, be too hectic for a quiet moment?
“We run the globe with glazed eyes but don’t have time for each other,” she says. “I almost walked past a free poem. But I want to change. This is a start.”
McIlvoy has a strict rule for the 100 poems in his street-reading repertoire. He likes them short, never abstract. Funny or sad, they must hit home instantly, like breaking news.
The son of a novelist father and a psychologist mother, McIlvoy began making up poems before he could spell. He winces over how poetry is taught in school, where works chosen for analysis are too often dense and make most teens view poetry as they would Latin: as a dead language.
After studying architecture at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, he canvassed in 2004 for presidential candidate John F. Kerry. For months, he went door to door asking for campaign contributions. He stood on street corners and hit up passersby. All the while, he read verse to fellow campaign workers.
“I have this bad habit,” McIlvoy says. “If I’m around my friends long enough, they all know that eventually they’re going to hear a poem.”
His curbside readings began last November, when he read bursts of verse to friends canvassing for an environmental cause in West Portal. He also stopped a few strangers and found he liked engaging people with poetry. Canvassing made him practiced in the art of the sell, prompting a name for his endeavor: the poetry canvass.
The poetry reader has taken his verse across San Francisco. In pricey Pacific Heights, he’s knocked on doors, saying, “My name is Mack. I don’t represent any group, and I don’t want your money. I just want to read you a poem, and then I’ll go.”
He has also read poems in Bayview Hunters Point, the city’s poorest neighborhood -- once approaching five youths throwing dice on a staircase. From “The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry,” he read “I Am the Bomb” by Mike M. Mollett:
I am most wise.
I play for keeps.
I am the unimaginable.
I have not been created for
When he finished, McIlvoy recalls, nobody said anything. The poet turned to leave.
“That’s cool,” one kid said, not looking up. “Read another.”
McIlvoy follows a long tradition of believers spreading the word on poetry. Experts know what he’s up against.
“Poetry is the poor little match girl of the arts, but at least that girl was selling something useful: a match that can light a cigar,” says Billy Collins, a two-time poet laureate of the United States. “But what do you do with a poem? It’s useless. That’s why some people love it and some people scratch their heads: Why do they need it?”
Collins has pushed to publish verse on buses and subways and persuaded an airline to briefly feature an in-flight poetry channel: “To read poetry is to join the community of human feelers, because a guy writing an Italian Renaissance poem felt exactly what you feel when a girl leaves you.”
Yet even a poet laureate sees limits for the art form’s mass appeal. “Lots of cool things have small audiences,” he says. “Like jazz and collecting tropical fish.”
Still, Collins applauds McIlvoy’s guerrilla tactics. “He’s ambushing people, and I’m all for that: poetry coming out of unexpected places. I like the way he apprehends people. Like a stickup man.”
McIlvoy performs in a culture with too little privacy, where solicitors hassle people at home and on the street. Some see his act as just more public noise.
He describes how, when he approached a couple, a woman snapped: “Can’t you see we’re here talking to people we really want to be talking to!”
Another woman climbed into her BMW and observed: “You know, this really isn’t working out for you. You need to get a life.”
Others welcome the intrusion. Liz Burnham, 42, who works three jobs yet describes herself as an “anti-establishment slacker who walks on the beach and does a lot of yoga,” recites for McIlvoy one of her own works: a heroin-related riff on a nursery rhyme she calls “Mary Had a Little Smack.”
Then she adds sheepishly: “That was a bit too punk, huh?”
McIlvoy meets people with too little time -- and too much. A homeless man with unruly blond hair heckles him regularly. “He hated the poem I read him,” McIlvoy says. “He insists that I should be reading Shakespeare.”
A college theater major complained that his readings showed too little passion. Still in the thrall of a McIlvoy love poem, a woman returned with a valentine. When a streetcar passed, drowning out a poem, George Shoblo wanted to hear it again.
“I’ve always got time for a poem, that’s just me,” says the 63-year-old hairdresser. “God gives you unique little experiences. It’s as simple as that.”
McIlvoy is still learning to read his audience. As he was reciting nature verse to a 9-year-old girl and her mother, he said, the child pointed to a John Updike work called “Dog’s Death.”
McIlvoy advised against the poem, saying it dealt with sadness and loss. “You won’t like it,” he said.
The girl insisted. So McIlvoy read -- he and the mother finally fighting back tears.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried
To bite my hand and died.
I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice
imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and,
McIlvoy said that when he was through, the girl looked at him and sighed. She said she loved the poem.