Poetry, said W.H. Auden, is personal speech in its purest form. It is primarily a spoken art, not a written one. It is important for people to hear it.
A poet is sitting in a window in a hotel lobby. It is 2:30 in the afternoon. No waiter is in sight. And the poet doesn't especially look like a poet. But looks can deceive, and so can good poems.
The poet's name is Sam Hazo, and he is the founder and director of the International Poetry Forum, which is based in Pittsburgh, not in the East Village. Not all poems have to be in iambic pentameter, and not all poets must live in New York.
Tomorrow evening at 7:30, at Wolf Trap, the IPF will inaugurate a series of performances called "Word and Drum," putting to percussion the works of Ezra Pound, Pablo Neruda, Stephen Vincent Benet, W.B. Yeats and others less well known. The drum -- which some say is man's original musical instrument -- will combine with the poem -- which some say is man's original attempt to embody himself in history -- for a kind of point-counterpoint evening of compacted speech. In all, 36 different percussion instruments will be used.
Perhaps you don't immediately associate the word "poetry" with the word "Pittsburgh." Willie Stargell, yes. U.S. Steel -- maybe. But literature doesn't happen in a place; it happens in people's heads. As Sam Hazo says, "Writing is something that happens when you begin to write. If you're a poet, you're only a poet at the moment you write a good poem. After that, you're just Joe Blow."
So far, more than 500 poets from here and abroad have come to Pittsburgh to participate in IPF programs. Poets who have come included W.S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, the late Archibald MacLeish. Pittsburgh may be the most receptive poetry town in America.
Pittsburgh is now the third largest corporate headquarters city in the United States, says Hazo. There is intellectual life and cultural vigor. "We've got a symphony, a ballet, three major universities. We're building a subway."
And for 17 years the town has had the International Poetry Forum. For 14 years, the IPF was funded by the Mellon family. When that relationship was dissolved, IPF got a "terminal grant." The grant ($500,000) was invested and the forum is self-sustaining.
"It's been a sad week for us," says Hazo. "Princess Grace was on our board. She was going to do a benefit for us next March. Anything I could say about her would be inadequate."
Sam Hazo's face comes to life. He leans close, across the table. "This is an example of a poem," he says. Both wickedness and delight are in his voice. "But it's also a curse."
Cursed be the father of the bride of the blacksmith who forged the iron for the axe with which the oak was felled from which the bed was carved in which was conceived the great grandfather of the man who was driving the carriage in which your mother met your father.
"Now if you come to our program, you'll really experience that curse."
"Word and Drum" will offer a repeat performance Oct. 4, at 8 p.m. Five other programs in the series are scheduled before spring.