The Printer’s Devil is an occasional column I write for Third Coast Review. This post is adapted from my first Printer’s Devil column. More on the little red devil below.
Poetry has always been part of my life, from Mother Goose rhymes to poetry and poetry-writing classes in high school and college. Mostly it was just on the sidelines of my life, except for a few brief flurries of serious writing. But recently I’ve decided that I need to help jump-start the poetry renaissance.
You may not think a poetry renaissance is necessary in Chicago. After all, Adam Morgan writesthat Chicago may be the poetry capital of America, partly because of the founding of Poetry Magazine here in 1912. He also credits other publications, venues and poets for Chicago’s dynamic poetry scene.
The poetry slam got its start in Chicago in 1984, and the Louder Than a Bomb poetry competition was founded here by Kevin Coval, Anna West and Young Chicago Authors. LTAB competitions are now held in cities across the U.S. (I recently wrote about a night of Coval’s readings from his latest book of poetry, A People’s History of Chicago, at the Driehaus Museum.)
The national Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine, is headquartered here and we also have the Poetry Center of Chicago.
Most any night of the week you can find a live poetry reading somewhere in Chicago.
Poetry lives a full and vibrant life in Chicago.
Nationally, the Academy of American Poets offers you a Poem a Day by email. Some of them are quite good. Many are by contemporary poets and some by traditional poets (i.e. dead white people). The Poetry Foundation has an app for your smartphone that enables you to search and read a favorite poet or “spin” and choose poems that match a mood or situation, like “Nostalgia and Family” or “Frustration and Love.”
The renaissance in poetry isn’t new but it’s exciting. It may have started with the genesis of poetry slams 30-some years ago but hip-hop’s expansion to a wider audience through the work of Chicago artists like Common and Chance the Rapper helped its revival.
I was not much of a hip-hop fan until a few years ago, when I saw the megamusical Hamilton for the first time. It opened my eyes to the wonder of hip-hop in storytelling. Hip-hop artists can smash together a profusion of words—like Dylan and early Springsteen—and make their stories rich and compelling.
My own love for poetry began in college. We read Shakespearean sonnets in my Shakespeare summer school class at UIC (sitting on the grass outside our own “Harvard on the Rocks” at Navy Pier). Listening to Professor Kogan read the sonnets aloud and reading them ourselves was a joy. Then later at Mizzou, I always found time away from my journalism courses for poetry. My favorites were:
- A modern lit course taught by Donald Justice in which I learned to love T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. Justice was one of the few professors I remember by name from my undergrad years. He was a quietly inspiring teacher and later considered an influential poet and writer. It was exciting to learn recently that a good friend also studied with Justice at another school. We enjoyed sharing our memories of his classes.
- A marvelous poetry-writing seminar with the great poet, John Neihardt. I still have my folder of poems, written on a typewriter and edited by hand, from that class. Some of them are not bad; some are embarrassing.
I’ve continued to read poetry, listen to it at every chance, and occasionally write it over the years. My poetry library includes works by my favorite poets—Auden, Eliot and W.B. Yeats, Chicago’s own Stuart Dybek, Kevin Coval and Carl Sandburg, plus Ron Padgett, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and Federico Garcia Lorca. I’m expanding my poetry interests by reading a more diverse group of poets. I like the work of Richard Blanco, who read “One Today” at the second Obama inauguration. I also like Natalie Diaz; her first book is When My Brother Was an Aztec, and Chicago poets Sandra Marchetti, Eileen Favorite and Laura Passin.
The 2016 film, Paterson, was thrilling because it was about a busdriver poet. As I said in my review, “It’s a beautiful film about nothing much.” It’s the story of a busdriver named Paterson who drives a bus around Paterson, NJ, and writes poetry every day. He also reads William Carlos Williams, a Paterson native.
As I said, my passion for poetry makes me want to jump-start the poetry renaissance. I guess I want everyone to appreciate poetry. So I ask, why do so many people say they don’t like poetry?
I belong to a book group that meets every month or two to read and discuss a notable book of fiction or nonfiction. It’s a group of a dozen or more highly literate and well-read people. One night I suggested we read the Kevin Coval book I mentioned above and I got groans. “I could see reading a few poems,” one person said, “but a whole book?”
My attempt to sell poetry that way didn’t work but the host for the next meeting asked me to spend a few minutes talking about poetry and reading a few poems. So I did that and I think most people said they enjoyed it. But several insisted they still hated poetry. Why, I wondered?
Matthew Zapruder tries to answer that question in his 2017 book, Why Poetry? It’s “an impassioned call for a return to reading poetry and an incisive argument for its accessibility to all readers.” Zapruder thinks the aversion to poetry results from the way it is taught in most schools—as something to analyze, parse and understand. Really, he says, the way to read poetry is just to read the words of the poem and forget everything we were taught in school about it. Just read the words.
Zapruder tells about how he was assigned to read a poet in high school and he picked W.H. Auden because the name was listed first. He knew nothing about Auden, whether the name indicated a he or she. But he still remembers the first lines he read, from “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
Something just clicked, he says. He didn’t quite understand all of it but he knew it said something important about being human.
Auden is perhaps my favorite poet of all; I have half a dozen books of his work. In his great poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” he writes, “For poetry makes nothing happen: It survives in the valley of its saying … / It survives / A way of happening, a mouth.”
The little red devil is a toy that operates under solar power, so it’s hard to make him hold still for a portrait. He’s standing on the letters that make up my first name, from fonts of various sizes from California job cases. Thanks to my son Steve and his wife Jan for finding them at an antique store.
Thank you for this column. I’m one of those people who would say, “One or two poems, but not a whole book” I know I need to change my attitude. Melinda Power
I think you would like Kevin Coval’s book. Each poem is based on an event in Chicago history. I’ll bring mine to our next meeting.
very interesting!! i didn’t know your dad was in the printing business.. and i also have spent a lifetime blaming editors for my typos–had NO idea it was a little devil doing it!!
Great post. Though I’d listen to poetry records in the poetry room of the public library as a kid (Wm Carlos Wms was a favorite, so I’ve put that film on my list!) I too would gravitate now to only a few poems, not a whole book. I think it’s the intensity and the density – poems say so much in so few words, so little space, that approaching a whole book anticipates sensory overload!
I don’t read a book of poetry as I would read a novel. I’ll skip around, reading some that interest me because of title or subject, then put it down and read more another time. I just picked up an old copy of an anthology from City Lights Bookstore and read some Allen Ginsberg, some Frank O’Hara and a little Kenneth Patchen.
This was fascinating! I’ve never heard of the printer’s devil before, but it’s just the sort of little fact that I love. There’s something majestic about typewriters, and I still use my grandfather’s when I write certain poems (just because I enjoy how it feels). I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts as to why poetry has such a bad reputation – it’s drilled out of us in childhood, and becomes something that is memorised, and intentionally confusing, and pedantic or pretentious. Poetry has the beauty of a novel condensed into a few lines – and is all the more powerful for it! (You’ve mentioned many writers that I hold close to my heart, and I can’t love you enough for it!) x
Thanks so much for your interesting comment. “Poetry has the beauty of a novel condensed into a few lines….” Perfect.
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