America's largest poetry jam

On the first day of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in tiny Waterloo, N.J., van driver Herb Greenberg can't believe what he sees: A whole team of people is directing traffic, including 138 school buses. It's the kind of scene you'd expect at a rock concert. "All of these people are here for poetry?" Mr. Greenberg says, shaking his head. "If you locked me in a room full of poets, I'd be looking for any way to get out."

But these people aren't looking for a way to get out. They're patiently waiting to get in. They have come from all over the East Coast. Some have come from as far as Missouri and Hawaii. But all have come to savor poetry's song. For them, poetry isn't punishment, it's nourishment.

The biennial Dodge Festival - held last month in a restored historical village near Stanhope, N.J. - is the largest poetry event in North America. The trees and horses make New York City feel much farther than an hour away. But that's part of the attraction for festivalgoers. There's an air of adventure in the long admission lines. People speak of the Dodge Festival (nicknamed "Woodstock") as if it were a modern-day pilgrimage.

Like poetry itself, the festival grounds are an eclectic mix of styles and voices. The village's wooden church and prim white houses are dignity personified. The large circus tents dotting the grounds add an air of excitement. And the hot-dog vendors and fried-dough stands bring a carnival energy to the mix.

The crowd slowly makes its way toward the Concert Tent, the largest of the festival's venues. Then people scatter toward one of 11 "Poets on Poetry" talks being offered simultaneously. Another set of talks, by 11 different poets, will begin in 90 minutes.

Later, there will be readings by New Jersey high-school poetry winners, a poetry sampler by five featured poets, talks on performance, hip-hop, the life of the poet, poetry and politics, and then finally 30-minute readings by five of the festival's 23 featured poets.

The next three days will be just as packed. But on this first day, poet Mark Doty, speaking in the 2,700-capacity Concert Tent, seems to articulate what many in the audience are thinking. "Our culture leads us to think that poetry is a quiet act," he says. "We don't expect poetry to reverberate. But, there is always so much more to be said, discovered. Poetry arises out of receptivity," he tells the crowd. "The job of the poet is to live openly."

Audience members nod and audibly agree. For a moment the tent feels like a revival meeting. "Telling the untold stories" and "celebrating the human spirit" are two unofficial themes that come up throughout the four-day festival. On day 2, festival director Jim Haba echoes these ideas as he introduces various poets in the Concert Tent. He will also remind the audience that "Poetry by its very nature invites the world to listen to its song."

So what kind of song does one hear at the Dodge? One that is sublime and always surprising. Among the 23 featured poets, no two voices are remotely alike. There are narrative poets, lyrical poets, Beat poets, hip-hop poets; nearly every aspect of the American experience is represented.

Gerald Stern, one of the featured poets, was recently named New Jersey's first poet laureate. He says poetry sings because "the language of poetry is the direct opposite of advertising."

"Beauty can stop suffering," he says. But beauty doesn't equal pretty. "There can be no beauty without truth," he emphasizes, and "truth is the struggle for the authentic word." That struggle must be behind every poet's work, no matter where they live or what their vision. "Regional poetry," he says, does not have the same meaning it did decades ago. There's a difference between poems that are set in a particular place, he explains, and places that are trying to articulate a certain shared view. He sees the latter mostly in urban areas, where poets are using their song to bring attention to a city's struggles.

Lucille Clifton, who has published 11 books of poetry and 17 books for children, says that people respond to poetry's song because poetry "allows people to explore their humanness."

Poetry speaks to the spirit in ways that prose cannot. Why? Because prose has "too many words." "Fear," says Clifton, is expressed with "oh," not with several paragraphs. And when poetry really sings, it allows people to find solace and healing. "I write," she says "to heal myself."

Edward Hirsch has written five books of poems and the bestselling "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry" (Harcourt Brace). He points out that "the deepest spirit of poetry is awe," and that "poetry exists between speech and song." Poetry is "spiritual information," he says, a powerful kind of fiction that shows us who we are. Hirsch says society needs poetry, even if some individuals don't.

Toni Blackman agrees. And she is on a mission to bring poetry's beat to her audiences in a bold, active way. Blackman is a poet and hip-hop artist, an accomplished "freestyler" who has performed all over the United States.

"Freestyling" is a form of improvisational verse that is performed by a group of people in front of an audience. Freestylers often begin with proverbs or riddles. One poet begins a verse, and then another builds upon it. Often, there is funky background music. The form began years ago in underground venues. Now, it's becoming more mainstream, and audiences at the Dodge Festival responded wildly.

"Improvisation touches souls," Blackman says, and "feedback from the audience is so immediate. Writing is more of a solitary act," whereas freestyling requires verbal and mental dexterity as well as "self-discipline, humility, and trust."

Performance poets are still dismissed by some in the poetry community, but Blackman notes that even the more conservative poets are starting to be influenced by the looser, more powerful presentations of the freestyle and hip-hop crowds.

Michael McCann's students have been swept away by the rhythms they've heard at the Dodge. Six of McCann's high-schoolers are among the 4,500 students who registered for this year's festival. McCann's group drove 18 hours in a crowded van from Atlanta, and the students are paying the cost of the trip themselves.

"It's nice to hear people expressing their own thoughts," says Kristi Cronan. Most of her peers never speak up in class.

"It takes courage to open yourself up," says Elsbeth Loughrey, who has written some poetry herself.

Her friend Keli Ollis agrees. "Poetry allows you to get to real emotion. Songs on the radio are so fabricated. Poetry is a passion. It's rhythm and sound," she continues. "And poetry is everywhere. Even 'speed checked by detection devices' has alliteration."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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