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Put a Poem in Your Pocket: National Poetry Month reminds us why poetry is 'the soul of the human race'

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.Wallace Stevens: Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.

Whether 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 Humanities 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.”

The 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.

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 for room 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.

Poster for a reading by Vachel Lindsay c. 1925
Poster for a reading by Vachel Lindsay c. 1925.

“His idea was that poetry belonged to the people,” says Heinzelman, “and this was one way of spreading it, like Johnny Appleseed.”

Lindsay 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 instrument.

“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 characters.

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.”

Langston Hughes: It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words. Along 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 nation’s imagination.

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 mattered, for whom it meant something to be a poet,” says Heinzelman. “They believed it was the highest calling you could possibly have.”

If 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.

2004 Spring exhibitions at the Ransom Center: The Collaborative Spirit, 20 x 20, Go Out and Look, Turning Point

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 variety 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.”

This 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.Allen Ginsberg: The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That's what poetry does.

“We need poetic forms to represent a reality that counters the ways of thinking about the world that produce trauma,” says Briante. “In this way, poetry remains an important tool in society.”

Even 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.”

Yet 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 game plan.”

Unpublished manuscript fragment of Walt Whitman
Unpublished 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.

Poetry’s 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.

Held at 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.

Poetry on the Plaza

In celebration 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.

On April 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 American-Statesman.

April 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 American-Statesman.

April 21 will be devoted to works by the 20 poets from the 20x20 exhibition, with readers drawn from around campus.

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.

Marianne Moore: Poetry, that is to say the poetic, is a primal necessity.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 public readings.

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 can 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.”

Vivé Griffith

Lindsay poster and Whitman manuscript:
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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