Poetry today, poetry in Maine

Posted Wednesday, April 24, 2013 in Culture

Poetry today, poetry in Maine

by Joshua Bodwell

April is National Poetry Month. Here in Maine this month-long celebration comes on the heels of three impressive triumphs in recent months: Bethel-based poet Richard Blanco’s reading in January at the second inauguration of President Obama; the culmination in March of Maine’s annual Poetry Out Loud recitation competition, which this year included a staggering 8,500 high school students from around the state; and, finally, the April release of “Take Heart: Poems from Maine,” an anthology collecting the first two years of Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair’s weekly newspaper column.

So poetry is hot in Maine right now—or, I should say, as “hot” as poetry can be these days.

You see, when Robert Frost stood in the flinty Washington D.C. winter air to recite a poem at the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, he was already both a literary and cultural icon—a full eleven years prior he’d even appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine replete with the painting of a stone wall.

On the other hand, when recently adopted Mainer Richard Blanco strode the same inaugural stage this past January, he was essentially unknown outside the inner circles of poetry (where he is indeed known and respected).

In the weeks building up to National Poetry Month, I have been asking myself how this chasm in our culture’s priorities has opened so wide in the fifty-two years between Frost and Blanco.

It’s true a lot has changed between Frost and Blanco. For one thing, there is more visual media than ever before competing for our attention. Poetry itself hasn’t done itself any favors either, building up academic walls that can feel inscrutable and insurmountable to the public. And between Frost and Blanco, many people have told by teachers—implicitly and explicitly—that they're not smart enough for poetry. But you know what? That’s not true.

When 1,800 free tickets were reserved with seemingly breakneck speed for Blanco’s February 26 reading at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, I was elated. My writer friends were thrilled, too. “A huge crowd for a poet?” we mused. “Incredible!” But here is the ugly truth about the hundreds of other wonderful poetry readings that will take place this year in Maine: the pervasive problem with too many contemporary poetry readings is that the audience consists of no one but other poets. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has quipped that this problem is akin to a ballerina taking the stage only to find that everyone in the audience is wearing a tutu.

So why do nearly 1,800 people turn out to listen to an inaugural poet, yet seem to be missing from Maine poetry events the other 364 days of the year?

It is true that other literary events can be poorly attended, too, but not like poetry—nothing like poetry. It is difficult for something as deliberate as poetry to compete with the noise of our modern lives. But the buzzing chaos of everyday life in the 2010s is exactly why we need poetry now more than ever. We turn to poetry after all, says Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair, because it “expresses an emotional truth we can find nowhere else.”

My thoughts and questions here shouldn’t be misconstrued as complaints; they’re not. Nor are my thoughts meant to be a finger-wagging judgment. No, this is a battle cry—a call to literary arms. This is a bold-faced challenge.

I challenge every reader here to attend at least one of Maine’s many poetry during these final two weeks of April. A good poetry reading can be just like driving alone in your car on a sunny day: when you turn the radio dial, you don't like everything you hear, but sometimes you find a tune that changes how you see the world.



Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, and has compiled dozens of poetry events scheduled around the entire state during the month of April at www.mainewriters.org

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