People who have never been to a poetry reading usually imagine such gatherings in one of two ways: 1) A dusty university auditorium half-filled with nodding bluehairs and beard-stroking, ponytailed professors who seem to actually appreciate the incomprehensible verse that an odd person on stage is spewing; 2) A smoky cafe with a tipsy turtlenecked cat mike-side, shouting annoying and depressing cadences over more expressive espresso machines.

But these scenarios exist only in the minds of those too intimidated to darken the door of a modern-day poetry reading, which a new poetry series developed by Portland Arts and Lectures will soon prove.

Poetry may be the most misunderstood and maligned of all literary genres. But thanks to slams, bus art and Bill Moyers' PBS series, it's making a comeback.

"Poetry is experiencing a resurgence of interest," says Megan McMorran, literary curator for Portland Arts and Lectures, who planned the upcoming Poetry Downtown reading miniseries. "The thing I fight most with poetry is that some people are still afraid of it because it's thought obscure or esoteric," says McMorran. "Then, if it is accessible and not obscure, it's thought that it must not be any good. I really don't like this attitude and want to change it because I think it's one the biggest detriments to poetry becoming a central part of our cultural life."

But Portland's cultural life isn't exactly lacking in quality poetry. Organizations such as the Mountain Writers Center, PSU's Literary Arts Council and Reed College bring several world-class poets to town every year. And many fine local poets read regularly at such venues as Borders' "I Love Monday!" poetry night hosted by Dan Raphael. But a visit to a strange college campus or cafe can be intimidating. Portland Arts and Lectures hopes to mainstream the art. "What often seems so far removed is actually put right in the heart of downtown Portland," says McMorran, who has worked with Literary Arts Inc. for 14 years.

Princeton University professor C.K. Williams, whose 1999 collection Repair won the Pulitzer Prize, will kick off the program this week. Williams will be followed by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski; two relative youngsters from New York, Claudia Rankine and Matthew Rohrer; and one of this country's most revered and oft-honored poets, Louise Glück, who will round out the first series. "We tried to go for a nice, eclectic mix with different styles, tones and perspectives," says McMorran. The key to the series' success will depend on such variety.

At this writing, the series is half sold-out, but McMorran isn't quite sure who will be attending. "My sense is that writers tend to go to poets more than they do other writers," she speculates. "Obviously people who write poetry and are interested in poetry will go. But I also think, for many people, poetry could offer something special. There's so little chance these days to have any kind of inner life if you're out there in the world. The pace and the way things are just doesn't allow for it." Poetry makes such allowances.

Individual tickets for the readings will cost $13, which may be considered steep for starving poets hoping for a glimpse of what they aspire to be. But McMorran is unapologetic. "Poetry always gets short shrift: 'It's poetry, you don't have to pay for it.' It's marginalized all the time, and I don't think that's right. It should be valued as much as anything else. Why will people pay more to see a novelist than a poet?" And considering what you'll get for it--culture, entertainment, food for the soul--$13 isn't that steep (student prices are also available). "You go for an hour," McMorran says, "and you'll get something quite meaningful."

C.K. Williams
Portland Arts and Lectures, First Congregational Church

1126 SW Park Ave., 227-25837:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 30Series tickets are $45; individual tickets, if available, are $13