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To her, every spot needs a touch of poetry

By Marjorie Coeyman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2001


It is with infinite gentleness and love that Alice Quinn brushes her hand over a poster that will soon be lining the walls of Iowa City buses.

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"It's really a lovely piece, isn't it?" she asks, as she takes a moment to read once again the five-line poem by eighth-century Japanese poet Lady Otomo no Sakanoe:

You say, "I will come."

And you do not come

Now you say, "I will not come."

So I shall expect you.

Have I learned to understand you?

"The poem is so neatly cinched at the end," she murmurs happily. It offers just the kind of pithy, compact pleasure that Ms. Quinn hopes a commuter will be able to enjoy within the space of a couple of stops on the subway or bus.

For Quinn, everyday life has been infused with poetry since childhood. In her new role as executive director of the Poetry Society of America, a group perhaps best known for its Poetry in Motion program, which places snippets of poetry in buses, trains, and subways in 11 US cities - she intends to weave threads of the poetic experience into the daily lives of millions of her fellow citizens.

"We want to surprise people with it, to put it in the very space where it's not supposed to be," she says. "Everything else on the subway is trying to sell you something. This offers instead a metaphysical moment in the subway."

Quinn herself has experienced no shortage of such metaphysical moments. For the past 14 years, she has been a fiction and poetry editor at The New Yorker. It's a position she will continue to hold, though now only two days a week, and only for poetry.

"I would never have thought of leaving The New Yorker," she says. But when she heard that the 90-year-old Poetry Society was looking for a new executive director, she knew it was an experience she wanted.

The New York-based society's stated aim is to place "poetry at the crossroads of American life." That's a goal Quinn finds irresistible.

It's hardly an effort that is new to her. Before beginning work at The New Yorker, she was an editor at Knopf for 14 years. There, she persuaded the company to return to its once-glorious tradition as a serious publisher of poetry, and during her tenure she brought out 35 volumes of verse.

Quinn was bred to love poetry at a young age. Her father, a defense attorney, loved verse and often recited to her things as diverse as Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard" and scraps of Ogden Nash. She thought of following her father into the law until she sat up till 3:00 one morning with a friend discussing Wallace Stevens. "You need to be in publishing," her friend told her, and helped lead her to the job at Knopf.

Perhaps it was the impact of her father's mental store of verse that has caused her to place a high premium on the value of memorizing poetry - a tradition she laments has largely disappeared from US schools. She has also been teaching for 10 years at Columbia University in New York, offering seminars on some of her favorite poets, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Alexander Pope, and Walt Whitman. She requires her graduate students to recite to her 10 poems from memory over the course of the semester.