Lit bits

Ten years of National Poetry Month

Call it the power of a good idea, or proof that poetry matters. Either way, National Poetry Month marks its 10th anniversary this year.

The idea for NPM came from a marketer at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux who urged the Academy of American Poets to adopt the program. They did, and the event debuted in 1996 with readings in New York and nine other cities. Word of mouth and media attention helped spread its popularity after that.

The Academy uses an umbrella approach to programming. Among the new programs this year are a poetry read-a-thon for middle schoolers (1,675 classrooms are participating nationwide) and a book giveaway of "How to Eat a Poem," an anthology for children ages 10 to 14. The Academy hopes to distribute 30,000 copies nationwide.

One idea that has proved popular is Life Lines, which asks readers to share the lines of poetry that matter most to them, along with a description of what called those quotes to mind. A selection of Life Lines is featured on the Academy's website (, which has 750,000 visitors a month.

The biggest hit so far, though, has been the National Poetry Month poster. This year the poster is comprised of lines from 18 famous poems. (The poster helped inspire Life Lines.) "I'm excited about the poster," says Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy. "I love the idea of a 13-year-old kid sitting in English class and getting bored and drifting off and staring at the front of the room and thinking 'body/ my house/ my horse/ my hound,' what does that mean? It's a phrase you can turn over and think about."

Judging from the number of poster requests, many people have been turning that phrase over. Normally the Academy gives out more than 175,000 posters in April and early May. But this year they were gone by April 15.

Technology to boost poetry

In January, The Poetry Foundation in Chicago launched its new website, This was the latest in a series of initiatives designed to cultivate a larger audience for poetry. The site includes an audio archive of more than 3,000 poems by 300 poets; daily news items and weekly feature pieces; podcasts, and bestseller lists for poetry books, among other offerings.

"We're trying to do the impossible, trying to program for two audiences at once: a broad audience and an audience of poets," says Web editor Emily Warn. "We view the site as a continuously curated poetry anthology."

Part of what makes the site distinctive is the fact that Ms. Warn and her staff publish articles that relate great poetry in the online archive to American cultural life. "For example, this week we featured an article about a poem by Alicia Ostriker that was found in Kurt Cobain's journal," she says. "The piece asks the question: Did Kurt Cobain die because he misread a poem?"

Other sites offer poetry podcasts, of course, but not on a daily basis. "We're using them to reach specific groups: young people and commuters. We see podcasting as a technology that enables people to experience poetry in a new way. It's a very intimate experience; you have headphones in your ear and the poet reads right to you," says Warn.

Another unusual feature of the podcasts: they are hosted.

"When we designed the podcasts, we thought of them as a radio program with a host. Listening to the podcasts is like listening to a great talk show, you get something different every day. But unlike a radio show, you can hear the poems on the program more than once," says Warn.

A bit of verse on PBS

Poetry is also making news on TV. Earlier this year the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer began a new series of poetry segments, funded by a grant from the Poetry Foundation. The series includes short profiles of living poets and longer pieces about poetry and current debates.

The first segment, which aired Feb. 27, featured Brian Turner, who served seven years in the US Army. His book, "Here, Bullet," documents his wartime experiences in Iraq.

Cowboy Poetry was the focus of the second segment. The third featured Wyatt Prunty, whose poem "The Returning Dead," was written in response to the NewsHour's honor roll of service people who've been killed in Iraq.

Jim Lehrer has always had an affinity for poetry, says Robert Flynn, communications director. He has featured it on the program many times, and when he gives commencement speeches, he advises graduates to keep a book of poetry on their bedside table. "Art is soul news," explains Flynn, "and it's as important as the other things we cover."

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