Baltimore and Maryland: poetry-rich, now and historically


Some 50 years ago, the great poet Theodore Roethke wrote "My heart keeps open house, My doors are widely swung." And so it is here in Baltimore that the community of poetry keeps a continuous open house, its doors widely swung to an ever-swelling audience of practitioners, participants, readers and listeners.

A couple of years ago, Joe Somoza, a professor at New Mexico State University, traveled America, reading his poems. At the end of his year-long tour, he concluded that the most receptive cities to the charms of poetry were Portland, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Baltimore. Somoza was delighted that in Baltimore his work and the work of others was really listened to. Baltimoreans he found wore their hearts on their sleeves; they came right up to the poet, pulled up a bar stool and talked. "An intelligent unsophistication" is what Michael Fallon, co-editor of Singing Man Press, terms what informs our city's embrace of poetry.

Baltimoreans have realized that poetry is an inexpensive way to come by community. More and more people are beginning to acknowledge that in poetry, they may realize a sense of connection, engagement and inclusion not readily available in a world whose pace rapidly accelerates, leaving many marginalized and isolated.

Regional publication

In Baltimore, there are as many ways into poetry as there are bars, churches and corner groceries. The written word abounds in books, chapbooks, broadsides, anthologies, papers, and newsletters; many of them published by local presses such as the New Poets Series, Stonewall, Chestnut Hills, Apathy, Tropos, Electric, Icarus, Dolphin-Moon, Jungle Man, Dragonfly, Lite Circle Inc., Dancing Shadow and Singing Man. Magazines and journals such as Pearl, Dancing Shadow Review, Facedown, Shattered Wig Review, Ant, Late Knocking, Articulate, Maryland Poetry Review and Passager flourish. And all over the city and into its surrounding suburbs, coffeehouses and bookstores host poetry readings where a smorgasbord of poetry written by professionals to beginners can be sampled almost any night of the week.

What accounts for the fact that all over the city poetry pops up like colorful umbrellas on a rainy day, no matter the season or weather? As poet and teacher Diane Scharper points out, those who write and those who sell the word have amiably married: "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." Blair Ewing, producer of the local cable show Poetry Jam, suggests that in a society that becomes "more and more technology based, there's a need to reassert the primacy of the written word."

In Baltimore, everyone has the opportunity to reassert that primacy. Many come to realize the energy of poetry in the classroom through the inspiration of such talented writers as Elizabeth Spires, Sister Maura Eichner, Barrett Warner and Lia Purpura. Poetry readings often start with the traditional "featured" readers, like beloved local wordsmiths Kendra Kopelke, Dan Cuddy, David Beaudouin, Robert Cooperman, Marta Knobloch, Jenny Keith, or Bruce Jacobs, followed by "open" readings, which feature such talented but less well-known writers as Richard Lane, Tom Chambers, Patti Kinlock, Shane Lynch or Sam Beard.

At a recent poetry reading, Ray Zelleni, reading his work publicly for the first time, reminded listeners that "a soul is but a flicker of passion/a flammable wick." Afterward, audience member and non-poet Alice Aldrich spoke of how "thrilling it is to see someone share that private space." For Aldrich, as for many others, "the shared experience of risk-taking fosters a sense of identity."

The emotions of poetry are easily shared, even by those who think poetry is the language of a foreign country. A college student, Robert Cole, who is a landscape surveyor, recently read Robert Frost's "Home Burial," a bittersweet narrative of a husband and wife fighting their grief over the death of their first-born. In response, Cole, taking literature as a required course, wrote: "As I was reading this poem, I started to feel as if I were there with the couple. I began to feel their grief and even felt tears develop in my eyes. The author was able to bring me into his poem as if I were there witnessing it."

To bring the reader into the poem to witness has been the ambition of a roster of Baltimore poets, among whom number Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Karl Shapiro and Adrienne Rich. There is no easier way than reading to slip into the elegant intelligence that informs the poems of Josephine Jacobsen, the honest, profound illumination that sparks the poems of Lucille Clifton or the deep and sensitive knowing that flows through the poems of Daniel Mark Epstein.

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