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Finding the Power of Poetry

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Don Patterson was only 8 when poetry grabbed him. In Columbus, Ga., where he grew up on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, all schoolchildren were required to learn by heart a poem called "The Song of the Chattahoochee." One day, in the auditorium, the whole school chanted it together, and Mr. Patterson found himself overwhelmed by the power of the recitation. "Once you hear a thing like that, you're hooked for life," he says.

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Patterson says poetry has always helped him get through career or family crises. In moments of despair, there's a particular poem he constantly returns to: Steven Vincent Benet's "Ballad of William Sycamore," about a group of people going west in a wagon train. The spirit of that poem, says Patterson, helps him to believe he can persevere.

Patterson also writes poetry and volunteers in schools in Napa, Calif., where he now lives, conducting workshops on poetry for high school students.

The desire to spark love for poetry in others seems to be one of the hallmarks of the true poetry devotee. It certainly distinguishes Luis Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez discovered poetry while serving time in jail, and credits that discovery with turning his life around. Now a published poet and writer living in Chicago, he conducts poetry workshops in prisons and juvenile detention centers.

"I was not good at school, I was not good at grammar," he says. But poetry, "is instinctual. Everyone's got it. It's soul talk."

"We hunger for absolute truth, and poetry is truth," says Andy Carroll who, along with former US poet laureate Joseph Brodsky, is a founder of the American Poetry and Literacy Project. He says he lost his taste for poetry as a child in school when uninspired teaching "pounded it out" of him. But then in graduate school he came to it anew, helped along by the discovery of Marianne Moore's famed verse on "Poetry" which begins, "I, too, dislike it." (I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond/all this fiddle./Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one/discovers in/it after all, a place for the genuine./Hands that can grasp, eyes/that can dilate, hair that can rise/if it must, these things are important ...)

The APLP works to put poetry volumes in hotel rooms, hospital waiting rooms, jury rooms, and prisons. It also prints verse in such unlikely spots as the Yellow Pages. The idea, Mr. Carroll says, is "to surprise people with poetry and remind them how wonderful it is."

Power of the verse

The power of poetry and the ability to enjoy it are pretty much universal, says Mr. Carroll. That's why the APLP is working so hard to sprinkle it throughout daily experience. Carroll loves to tell the story of the woman in rural Georgia who, thanks to the APLP, saw Emily Dickinson's "Hope" in the Yellow Pages, and wrote to Carroll to tell him how it lifted her out of a painful moment. ("Hope" is the thing with feathers -/ That perches in the soul -/ And sings the tune without the words -/ And never stops - at all ...)

For National Poetry Month, Carroll is driving across the US handing out poetry books to as many people as he can. He started in New York City on April 1 and hopes to give away 100,000 books by the time he reaches California at the end of the month. All he wants, he says, is for people to experience that special moment when they encounter a poem: "You read it," says Carroll, "and you think, 'Now, that's exactly right.' "

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