To her, every spot needs a touch of poetry

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.

"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.

One of her students thrilled her a couple of weeks ago by successfully declaiming the whole of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

She also loves the idea that some straphangers may now be memorizing verse as they ride the rails.

Of course, the new job involves more than just surprising commuters with verse. The 3,000-member PSA - whose early members included Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandberg, and Wallace Stevens - regularly sponsors poetry-related events and talks, runs an awards program, and publishes a magazine, all aimed at "building a more expressive and imaginative America."

Poetry in Motion now reaches 11 million people a day, nationwide. But the program does not run effortlessly. Funding comes from a variety of public and private sources, and much depends on the loyal support of groups like the American Institute of Graphic Arts, which cosponsors the program and helps design the posters.

Keeping funds flowing, however, is a continual concern - the program is now suspended in both Boston and Washington while new donors are being sought -and Quinn dreams of finding "maybe four or five new corporate sponsors."

There is little question about public enthusiasm for the project. Calls and letters pour into the PSA, praising the program and often asking where it would be possible to find more verse like the poem glimpsed on the subway or bus.

Many calls come from teachers and librarians eager to share what they saw with students. But Christina Davis, membership director and publications editor at the PSA, says she's surprised by how many of the New York City calls come from people who work on Wall Street and have become intrigued with a poem during the lengthy subway ride downtown.

"They're interested enough to take the time to call us," she says. "It's amazing when you consider what a hurry these people are usually in. The New York minute is not usually filled with poetry."

The response to the program is not surprising to Quinn, who believes that many individuals hunger for the imaginative qualities and "poetic intelligence" offered by verse. "There's an explosion of interest in poetry right now," she says. She offers the popularity of hip-hop as a proof that fascination with rhyme and alternate forms of expression are alive and well in America.

Quinn is far from content to stop with placing poetry on public transit. Currently, she's dreaming of a daily radio spot that will feature a reading of verse. But as she hones other plans, she continues to savor the success of Poetry in Motion.

One enthusiastic caller last week told Quinn he remembers the first time he saw one of the poems as a significant moment in his life. "These poems," she says, "are a major source of spiritual nourishment for millions of people every day."


(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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