Put a bunch of poets around the table and you may imagine lofty conversation, dashing metaphors and image-filled stories that capture the imagination of everyone present. While those of us who write poetry would like to believe this is true, poets are in fact regular people. And as such, they like to complain.
What you're just as likely to hear from a table full of all-too-human poets is griping about how poetry is undervalued in our culture. "It's unappreciated," we whine. "No one buys it, and making a living as a poet is an impossibility."
The truth behind these claims is a little fuzzier. Dana Gioia expounded upon poetry's disappearance from American culture in his much-discussed 1991 essay, Can Poetry Matter? As he pointed out then, and as is still true today, poetry is undergoing a period of great expansion, with a proliferation of MFA programs designed around its study, less formal poetry workshops available in most cities and an abundance of first-book contests for poets. There's arguably never been a better time to be a poet.
Yet if you mention poetry to the average passerby, he's likely to turn up his nose. And if you ask anyone who isn't a poet to name a significant contemporary poet, he may be hard-pressed to come up with a name. Poetry is virtually invisible in American culture to people who aren't poets. This isn't good for poetry, and it certainly isn't good for the culture.
If we who write, read and love poetry want to see this change, we don't have the luxury of sitting around and griping. We need to put poetry in people's hands. We need to put poetry in people's ears. And we need to put poetry in people's mouths. Poetry has the ability to move and inspire and haunt and galvanize people, but it can't when they don't have access to it. Here are some things each of us can do to make this happen.
1. Buy poetry
This may seem elementary, but it's essential. Few major publishing houses publish poetry anymore. Why? People don't buy it. Many of the small presses that do publish poetry are perpetually on the brink of folding. Why? Again, people aren't buying. The remedy is obvious.
So you buy poetry for yourself? Great. Now buy it for other people, too. Give books of poetry for birthday presents, for anniversary presents, for graduation presents. I still have the first collection of poems someone gave me as a child. I don't know who it came from, but I do remember sitting with it as a little girl and reading over and over Alfred Lord Tennyson's Tears, Idle Tears. As such, it's become my habit to greet the birth of a friend's baby with a book of poems collected for children. I love Talking Like the Rain: A Read-to-Me Book of Poems (Little, Brown), edited by X.J. and Dorothy Kennedy and Jane Dyer. The shelves of children's books at any bookstore will yield many other options.
What is your favorite book of poetry? Why doesn't everyone you know own a copy? What new poet offered you unexpected joy or made you see things in a new way? Why haven't you passed that poet's book onto someone in your life? Make it someone who might not find it on his own. Make it someone who wouldn't think to look.
2. Fill the world with poems
People expect to find poetry in small literary magazines and at hushed events where a few people read aloud. In fact, poetry is tucked into such small nooks and crannies that some people who might want to find poetry don't know where to begin. Help place poetry in unexpected places.
Santa Fe-based poet Gary Glazner, organizer of what's believed to be the first national poetry slam competition, has experience doing this. When the Inn at Alameda, a hotel in Santa Fe, decided to do something more innovative than leave chocolates on its guests' pillows, the hotel hired Glazner to be its poet in residence. What followed was a year-and-a-half long project that paired Glazner's poetry with the Inn's guests. A series of his poems were printed on small pieces of handmade paper, rolled into scrolls and left on the pillows. In total, more than 45,000 poems were distributed. He also hosted a monthly reading series in the hotel bar and wrote poems for special occasions for hotel guests.
The response was overwhelming. The guests appreciated having small poems on beautiful paper to take home with them, and large crowds showed up for the readings. The project also generated dozens of articles. Each time someone read an article or listened to a poet read or picked a poem up off the pillow, someone interacted with poetry when he or she might not have otherwise.
Poet Stephen Frech has taken a quieter approach. Years ago, when rediscovering his love for the poet William Stafford, Frech decided to do something to share his love of Stafford with others. He chose a handful of poems that he found particularly moving and gathered them in a palm-sized chapbook. He printed 25 copies and sent them to friends and relatives. For some people, this was an introduction to Stafford's poems; for others, it meant a small gift of language in the midst of a regular day.
We'd advise you before distributing other writers' poetry that you determine whether it is in the public domain. If it's not, do seek permission from the publisher or the poet, whoever holds the rights, before you reproduce it. Even if this isn't a money-making project, wouldn't you like people to seek your permission before disseminating your work?
3. Infuse your special events
Get Started Spreading the Word
Whether you're choosing poetry to share with others or exploring the work of poets you've never read before, the following titles provide a treasure trove of poetry for every taste: Anthologies: Picking up a poetry anthology is like being turned loose at a literary smorgasbord—so many enticing items you don't know where to start (or stop). Try Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, edited by Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz (a follow-up to America's Favorite Poems, the original volume from Pinsky's effort to rekindle the nation's interest in poetry). Good Poems, edited and introduced by Garrison Keillor, collects poems, both classic and contemporary, originally presented on Keillor's daily The Writer's Almanac program (broadcast nationally through Minnesota Public Radio). U.S. Poet Laureate: Do your part to support the reigning U.S. poet laureate by sharing his/her work. Billy Collins is serving his second consecutive year in the laureate post. His newest collection is Nine Horses: Poems, while Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems has become a favorite of poets and nonpoets alike. Young Readers: Create poetry fans at an early age with classics such as A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets by Naomi Shihab Nye (editor), and Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People by Nikki Giovanni. Don't forget anything edited or written by Myra Cohn Livingston (and don't assume these works are "kid stuff" or you'll be missing some great writing yourself). History and Culture: Poetry can carry you back through time or lead you to exotic lands. Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems About Slavery, 1660-1810 by James G. Basker (editor) gathers verse by slaves as well as poems about slavery. The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks (translator) presents the words of 13th-century Sufi mystic Jelalludin Rumi in American free verse with stunning results. From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath by Phillip Mahony (editor) presents a panorama of the era through the words of soldiers, protestors, Vietnamese children, widows and others. And keep in mind you can do so much to support poetry by simply purchasing a literary journal at your local bookstore. These recommendations are brought to you from Nancy Breen, editor of Poet's Market, a comprehensive collection of poetry markets from Writer's Digest Books. To order your copy, visit your local bookstore or www.writersdigest.com, or call (800)448-0915.
Many poets admit they only talk about poetry with other poets. Expanding that may mean beginning with our inner circles.
Make poetry part of your holiday rituals. At a Thanksgiving event I attended last year, people brought poems of gratitude and abundance to share. Before we ate, we stood in a circle and shared poems and stories. Inspired by that, I decided to create holiday cards that reflected who I am and what I do. I bought holiday stationery and printed on it a simple greeting and two poems: one by Mary Oliver, one by Rumi. More than one friend contacted me explicitly to thank me for the unusual greeting, in particular the choice of two beautiful poems. Many of the people on my mailing list probably didn't read a single poem all year before that.
Frame a favorite poem for someone's new home or office. Encourage people to read poems at recitals and weddings. At a symphony performance I attended, the conductor read to the audience Gerard Manley Hopkins' musical poem God's Grandeur. The rest of the music that evening had a magic quality I would have otherwise missed.
4. Share poems with kids
Ask people who hate poetry when they started hating it, and the answer is likely to be in school, around the time they had to memorize the difference between an iamb and a trochee. Many kids graduate from school believing that poetry is complicated and secretive. But if you've ever stood in front of a group of kids and read a poem aloud, the response is invariably delight. The best thing you can do for the future of poetry is help a young person realize and hold on to the joy of experiencing a poem for the first time.
Many cities and states have established writer-in-the-school programs, but it isn't necessary to be affiliated with them to get poems in the ears of children. Most schools and community centers welcome volunteers with special expertise. Offer to do a poetry workshop. Bring your favorite poems. Read them aloud. Ask the kids to read them aloud. Encourage students to write. Check out the Teachers & Writers Collaborative Web site for fun exercises to do with students: www.twc.org.
5. Expand the definition
When the poetry slam was created in 1986, the idea behind it was to change the tradition of poetry readings by giving the audience a voice and a power equal to that of the poet. Emphasis was placed on audience participation, on performance in addition to language. Marc Kelly Smith, considered the father of the slam, says performance poetry serves to "break down the bias of poetry."
While breaking down that bias, slams have been hugely successful in building a new audience for poetry. National championships are held annually, a network of readings and tours are held all over the country, and documentary films have been made on the phenomenon. Several European countries now hold their own national slam competitions. This is one place where poetry is clearly prospering.
Find things that are happening in the poetry world that aren't tucked away in small literary journals. Share them.
Walt Whitman said, "To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too." To have great audiences, we must have poets who are willing to step forward and support and nurture the art. It is our responsibility. Start where you are sitting right now. Start today.
This article appeared in the April 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.