Poetic resurgence raises doubts

July 23, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

While Rita Dove was poet laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, she received thousands of letters from people who wanted to talk about poetry. One woman told Ms. Dove that she thought poetry should be taught to children before they could read, before "they could learn to be afraid of it. Poetry," the letter said, "was making the language your own."

The sheer tonnage of those letters signifies a poetry renaissance, according to Ms. Dove. "You have poetry in the universities. You have poetry in the high schools, which is new. You have poetry in the communities. You even have poetry in the D.C. buses and in the New York subway. You can't keep a good thing down."

Whether poetry is also experiencing a renaissance in Baltimore depends on whom you talk to. There's general agreement that there is a proliferation of poetry readings, literary journals and small presses. But not everyone believes that what is spoken and written is truly poetry.

The debate has heated up partly because so much poetry is being spoken and written today, and partly because of Bill Moyers' latest PBS series, "The Language of Life," which consisted of interviews with, and performances by, 18 poets. The final episode in the series airs Friday. Proclaiming a renaissance of public poetry, Mr. Moyers says he wants to return poetry to its physical roots, to the time before print limited poetry's magic.

The problem is that many poets believe that print enhances poetry's magic. Shakespeare, after all, said that a poet "gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name," meaning by that a word on a page.

Public or performance poetry, which Mr. Moyers touts, is often seen as more performance and less poetry. The multimedia mix of video images, rock music and poetry on MTV is an example. Going along with the trend are the poems read at music festivals, such as Lollapalooza, that offer a stage for poetry readings. Even Maya Angelou's reading at President Clinton's inauguration is widely accepted as having been a good performance but not a good poem.

What's good about the proliferation of poetry, many local poets say, is the widespread attention that poetry is getting. Carolyn Forche and Lucille Clifton, two nationally recognized Maryland poets who appear on the Bill Moyers series, argue that the show gives poetry back to the people.

"Poetry is a many-colored self," says Ms. Clifton. "It is serious. But it can also be celebrated: Whitman, after all, said, 'I hear America singing.' "

Poets such as Mark Strand, the Elliott Coleman Professor of Poetry at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and U.S. poet laureate from 1990 to 1991, say that poetry is much more than a performance. Nor is Mr. Strand sure that there is a poetry renaissance: "If there is, I'm delighted," he says. "If there isn't, poetry will continue.

"Getting to know a poet's work is like reading a new language," he says. Poetry is not the breezy entertainment that sometimes occurs at a poetry reading, he adds. Poetry is what is central to our lives.

The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars have long been central to literary life in Baltimore. Hopkins' graduates are the force behind nearly every creative writing program, literary magazine, and small and large press in the area.

Established in the 1940s by the late Elliott Coleman, the seminars provide a year of intense work for their writers (who score heavily on the side of the argument that favors poetry in print).

In addition, the seminars feature monthly readings by well-established authors, such as Josephine Jacobsen. Former poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and a Baltimore poet, Ms. Jacobsen, at 86, has just seen her new and collected poems, "In the Crevice of Time," published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Ms. Jacobsen agrees that poetry isn't merely entertainment. Yet, she says, some parts of the poetry renaissance merely entertain.

"Some of the work I saw on Moyers' show will evaporate the next minute," she says. People, however, are looking for a way to say something, and it's wrong to silence that, she adds.

People are also buying books of poetry. Commercial success is one reason that so many readings occur in bookstores, such as Lambda Rising, Lammas Books, Raven Bookshop, Bibelot and Borders. David Kriebel, editor of Lite magazine, reports in Lite that there is "an average of at least two readings per week with an attendance of 25 to 30 people."

Increasing the appetite

Bookstores not only sponsor poetry readings, but also feed the public's appetite for poetry books and increase the desire to hear poetry read. It's a symbiotic relationship.

Borders, which holds "Meter's Running," a series of monthly readings attended by as many as 80 people at a time, reports brisk sales of poetry books and periodicals. "Borders Towson is in the top 10 percent of Borders stores nationally in poetry sales," according to Borders publicist Chris Brenchley, who says the reading series has increased poetry sales by 35 percent.

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