If there is one thing that’s clear about
the state of poetry in the 21st century, it’s that nothing
is clear about it. There are many who believe poetry is out of
vogue and a shrinking literary form. Others are convinced it has
never been more important or relevant than today.
The debate comes
into focus every April, when the country celebrates National Poetry
Month. Across the nation, bookstores sell more
poetry, poets give more public readings and more poems start appearing
beside newspaper columns and on the radio and television.
you’re a poetry aficionado or skeptic, you’re
sure to have the chance to experience firsthand the literary genre
considered both most human and most mysterious. Then you can decide
for yourself whether poetry matters today. It’s a question
people were less likely to ask even a quarter century ago.
“Poetry was so important to the 20th century,” says
Dr. Kurt Heinzelman, a poet and curator at the Harry Ransom
Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. “The
20th century was the period of the greatest explosion of a new
kind of poetic experimentation since the age of Shakespeare.”
American public responded positively to that explosion. During
World War II, soldiers could be found carrying tiny books of poems
in their uniform pockets by way of government issued Armed Services
Editions. And even earlier in the century, regular folks across
the country picked up their newspapers to follow the wanderings
of poet Vachel Lindsay.
a poet whose name is nearly unknown today, was famous for his cross-country “tramps,” walks
that totaled more than 2,800 miles and during which he traded poems
and board. These journeys became so well known that newspapers
covered his movements and he was invited to read for President
Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet.
for a reading by Vachel Lindsay c. 1925.
“His idea was that poetry belonged to the people,” says
this was one way of spreading it, like Johnny Appleseed.”
is just one of the poets featured in a new exhibition at the Ransom
Center. 20 x 20: Twenty American Poets of the Twentieth
Century, opening April 6, features holdings
of 20 key poets of the last century, plus Walt Whitman, the granddaddy
of contemporary American verse. The exhibition shows that in a
century marked by political upheaval, technological advances and
sustained violence, poetry remained a fundamental and expressive
“The exhibition shows some of the ongoing sources of poetry’s
vitality,” says Heinzelman.
It points to a time when the vitality
of poetry was obvious, and the poets included in the exhibition
were some of the greatest
forces of the period. Langston Hughes was at the center of the
Harlem Renaissance and brought jazz rhythms into verse. Robert
Frost got people thinking about “the road less traveled.” Edgar
Lee Masters—whose “Spoon River Anthology” was
an instant success and best-seller—brought the fictional
mid-America town of Spoon River to life through the voices of 214
The exhibition features a draft of Hughes’s “I,
Too, Sing America” in his extravagant, impeccable handwriting.
Visitors can see a Frost letter written just after his wife’s
death in which he admits, “I am afraid I dragged her through
pretty much of a life for one as frail as she was.”
with a first edition of “Spoon River Anthology” is
a photo of Masters’ mother Lucinda Masters, who was fictionalized
as Lucinda Matlock in the book. Masters gave up
a successful legal career in the office of famed lawyer Clarence
Darrow in order to be a full-time poet.
The selection of manuscripts,
photographs, works of art and memorabilia is culled from the Ransom
Center’s extensive collections,
and is designed to tell a story of the century that goes beyond
history to help us understand how poets, and poetry, captured the
In 1967 poet Robert Lowell was lauded
and even landed on the cover of Time magazine with an artist-rendered
laurel crown. Lowell was
hailed as the best poet of a generation that was amplifying the
voice of poetry in America. For Heinzelman, Lowell himself marked
the end of an era.
“I make the point in the exhibition that Robert Lowell was
probably a member of the last generation for whom poetry really
for whom it meant something to be a poet,” says Heinzelman. “They
believed it was the highest calling you could possibly have.”
poetry is no longer viewed as the “highest calling,” it
is not without great import in American culture, says poet Marie
Howe, author of two award-winning books of poetry. Howe is teaching
poetry to graduate students at the James A. Michener Center for
Writers this semester.
Far from being irrelevant in our culture,
poetry, Howe asserts, is as important as it has ever been. Just
take a look at the response
to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th.
“Everybody wanted poems, because there was no way to talk
about what happened,” says Howe. “We didn’t have
the language to speak about the depth of feeling, the range and
and contradictory feelings people felt all at once. The only thing
that could do that was poetry.”
Up and down the streets of
New York City, where Howe lives, people placed candles and verses.
Giant sheets hung in nearby parks, covered
with remembrances and poems.
“Everyone went and read and read and read,” she says. “Writing
was everywhere, and I was moved by how much people needed and wanted
it, how much we needed to stand together and read together.”
isn’t surprising to Susan Briante, a poet and Ph.D.
candidate in the Department of English who is also assistant director
of the department’s creative writing program. Briante studies
how cultures respond to traumatic events such as violence, racial
tension and economic crisis.
“We need poetic forms to represent a reality that counters
the ways of thinking about the world that produce trauma,” says
this way, poetry remains an important tool in society.”
in less extreme states, poetry is still woven through our lives
and the events that mark them.
“When you get married, people ask, ‘Do you know a
good poem?’” says
Howe. “When somebody dies, we read poems at the funeral.
When someone has a baby. When huge transitions happen in our lives,
we want poetry. When we fall in love. When we break up with somebody.
When somebody is dying. The soul of the human race is in poems.”
there are no poetry blockbusters, and it’s hard to imagine
a poet on the cover of Time magazine today.
“Poetry has this marginalized and privileged position,” says
Briante. “It doesn’t fit into capitalism’s big
manuscript fragment of Walt Whitman.
Thus people have to look a little harder to find
poetry than to find mystery novels or presidential biographies.
Even so, poetry
has no shortage of advocates.
University of Texas at Austin alumnus
Bill Moyers has helped make poetry available through his “Fooling
with Words” and “Sounds
of Poetry” documentary series. The Library of Congress appoints
a poet laureate to help promote poetry in the country. Public buses
in Austin and elsewhere post poems for their passengers through
Poetry in Motion. And National Poetry Month is devoted in part
to expanding the scope of poetry’s audience.
ability to maintain an audience depends on putting it in front
of people’s eyes and into people’s ears.
At the Ransom Center, the 20x20 exhibition does the former, and
the long running Poetry on the Plaza offers the latter.
noon the first Wednesday of each month, Poetry on the Plaza offers
the university community the opportunity to hear poetry
read aloud. Readers are drawn from the university and the local
community and have recently included Austin Mayor Will Wynn and
Liz Carpenter, former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson.
of National Poetry Month, the Ransom Center will host Poetry on
the Plaza every Wednesday during April, offering
an exciting range of themes and approaches to poetry.
7, Poetry on the Plaza will feature Poetry and Food, with readers
to include David Garrido, head chef at Jeffery’s
restaurant in Austin, and Dale Rice, food critic for the Austin
14 will be devoted to Poetry and Sport, and will feature men’s
basketball player Royal Ivey, women’s basketball
Coach Jody Conradt and Kirk Bohls, sports columnist for the Austin
April 21 will be devoted to works by the 20
poets from the 20x20 exhibition, with readers drawn from around
April 28 will feature slam poets from the campus and Austin
community. Slam poets make poetry a performance art, offering competitive
versions of local poetry readings.
Now in its fifth year, Poetry
on the Plaza consistently draws crowds of students and university
faculty and staff who may eat lunch
while listening and then walk away with a new poem to carry through
the rest of their days.
Perhaps it is the staying power of an individual
poem that accounts for the fact that despite its naysayers, poetry
still has life
today. When poet Robert Pinsky was named poet laureate in 1997,
he founded the Favorite Poem Project and put out a call for Americans
to offer their favorite poems. Fully 18,000 did. Americans from
age five to 97, from every state, with diverse backgrounds and
educations came forward to share their poems in more than 1,000
They read “Casey at Bat” and “The
Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” They recited works by renowned
poets Edgar Allan Poe and Gwendolyn Brooks. They showed that poetry
have a place in any person’s life.
“The great thing about a poem is that anyone can take it,” says
Howe. “Anyone can copy it. They can memorize it. They can
walk around with it in their body for the rest of their lives.
It’s there. It’s free. I think that American culture
hasn’t figured out a way to sell poems, to mass market them.
If there was a way, I think they probably would. And then it would
become popular. But in fact, they’re free. A poem, once written,
belongs to everyone.”
Lindsay poster and Whitman manuscript:
Ransom Humanities Research Center