Americans Reconnect With Poetry

From MTV to cafes and subways, meaningful word play is making a comeback

IT's well past midnight, and Hope Jordan just won the poetry slam at the Cantab Lounge with a bittersweet poem about an aimless ride in a pickup truck. Willowy and intense, she is both new symbol and brave carrier of an ancient art.

Poetry, the alleged quietest of arts, has grown into a multicultural chorus in America over the last few years. Coming from everywhere, poets like and unlike Hope Jordan are now sprinkling poems on the populace in the many byways of daily life; on buses in Chicago, in New York subways, in hotel rooms, hospital rooms, on CDs, cassettes, radio, and soon to be scattered throughout thousands of phonebooks on Long Island, N.Y., by the American Poetry and Literacy Project.

Add an avalanche of poetry readings and slam contests in hundreds of bookstores and cafes from coast to coast; mix in funky poets on MTV, ebullient poets featured now on "Language of Life," a PBS series hosted by Bill Moyers, and the upcoming TV series "The United States of Poetry." How long before the big hitters in poetry smile from glossy trading cards?

What prompts this renaissance can be partially seen at the poetry slam at the Cantab Lounge. Jordan, a former journalist, now a waitress and mother of two, drove from New Hampshire to Cambridge, Mass., with a friend. "I was terrified," she said when she stood before 100 people, inadvertently entered in the slam competition instead of being an open mike participant.

No need. Supportive and encouraging, the audience responds with pre-poem applause, rapt attention during the recitation, and then post-poem applause and humor that would warm the heart of Edgar Allen Poe. "This is a community of people who understand how central the word is to our humanity," says Jerome Petiprin, a participant at the reading. "People come to listen. This is rain on dry ground," he says.

US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer-Prize winner Rita Dove sees the poetry renaissance, and all poetry gatherings, as a reaction to a society grown too insular.

"In the '70s and '80s we decided it was every man for himself, with a single mindedness to get ahead," she says in an interview. "Then you get there and discover, 'What's there?' What is there if you don't have a soul? The result of poetry is that it both speaks to your interior life and connects you with other interior lives."

Mr. Moyers suggests that new poets in the oral tradition are proving once again that English is a living language. "A powerful new language is being forged by the contributions of so many different people from different cultures. What most people call multiculturalism," he says, "I call America."

Others see a democratization of access as one of the keys to explaining the renewal of public interest in poetry. Where academia tended to shroud and protect poetry, burgeoning ethnic diversity, desktop publishing, and the power of oral tradition, as expressed in rap and even cowboy poetry, have helped pull it into greater public life. "Once poetry is out of the cage," Moyers says, "it will remain out."

"In a culture where it is more and more dangerous to disagree, poetry empowers the individual voice," says Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House in New York City, a poetry library and support organization for the cause of poetry. "So much political and rhetorical language today turns us into objects, that people want to tell their deepest truths."

Audiences today are more regional and decentralized because of ethnicity and regional differences. "Some poets think that it is no longer possible to have a Dylan Thomas or a T.S. Eliot," Ms. Briccetti says, "because the strong regional differences won't allow that kind of fame."

In San Francisco, the city that is home to the legacy of beat poetry, readings are held somewhere in the city every night of the week. "Although the majority of people that come are under 30," says Jennifer Joseph, publisher of Manic D Press, and a poetry reading organizer for eight years at the Paradise Lounge in the city, "we have teachers, engineers, strippers, fishermen, you name it. Great moments occur because people are so involved."

Ms. Joseph describes a recent first-time participant, unknown to the regulars, who stepped to the mike. "He was brilliant," she says. "One of his lines was, 'Waiters ask the hardest questions. Do you know what you want? Do you need more time?' You could see little invisible lightbulbs go on above everybody's heads. It's the kind of experience you can't get from TV."

At the City Lights Bookstore, guardian of the beat poets, poetry sales are booming. "Two years ago our hardcover sales of poetry books reached about $9,000," says Paul Yamazaki, book buyer for 20 years. "Last year it was $20,000, and if you add paperbacks, it's $70,000. This is the best it's been in my 20 years."

In New York, Elliot Figman, the executive director of Poets & Writers Inc., says subscriptions for the magazine Poets & Writers continue to grow. "Nine years ago we started with 8,500 subscribers," he says. "Today, counting newsstand sales, we have over 50,000 circulation."

But the danger in the boom, some poets say, is the American tendency to popularize something, and then reduce quality to the lowest common denominator.

"Something that our country does very well," Ms. Dove says, "is take something that people love and market it to death. That is what happened to rap. It was commercialized very quickly. I don't think we are in danger of that in poetry. But it's important to be vigilant and insist on excellence."


Poet Laureate Rita Dove:

"I've felt this resurgence of interest in poetry for at least the last five years, and it is more at the grass-roots level.

"There has been a growing interest in poetry at the university and high school level for quite a while now; creative writing programs at universities and the numbers of teachers who have tried to teach poetry in high schools have increased dramatically in the last ten years....

"I don't think there is any poet out there who will tell you that they can make money from poetry.... A great poem is in some way beyond words, beyond the words on the page, because the words ... are doing a lot more work than you ever expected language to do..."

Bill Moyers:

"I don't believe the success of a good poet is measurable. If his or her poem touches your heart, it is valuable.... The value of poetry is at odds with its marketability. Poetry isn't for sale. Poets aren't trying to merchandise something to us.

There is a great skepticism in the country toward politicians who manipulate us with their language to conceal, and advertisers who manipulate us with language to buy.

So people become cynical about language, and here comes an art form whose only virtue is its authenticity; the poet is not trying to tell you how to think or feel, but how she thinks or feels, and you know instantly if it is authentic.

I think some of this new poetry will become timeless, and most will disappear, but the heightened language that is poetry will always serve our heightened need to be human and talk about it."

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