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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Greene: Public Poetry

On July 21, 1969, the day after the first moon landing, The New York Times published a poem called Voyage To The Moon by Archibald MacLeish on its front page. Today, that seems almost as miraculous as the landing itself. But back then, poetry was still part of the everyday fabric.

Homer’s poetry was memorized and recited in ancient Greece as an entertainment and instruction of the highest order. The classic poems have everything, from swashbuckling adventure to heartbreaking insights about the human condition, all conveyed in gorgeous language that uplifts, surprises and even stays with the listener.

More than five decades ago, even my kindergarten class memorized Stopping By The Woods on A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. This was, after all, Vermont, and it was our Big Number. Shameless hams that we were, we declaimed it, in childish singsong, at every opportunity.

Fast forward to the 70’s, with John Mortimer’s beloved character, Horace Rumpole, the old Bailey hack, forever quoting Wordsworth and Shakespeare – and we loved him for it. But today, for the most part, poetry has become the bastion of a select few, ignored by the rest of us.

Perhaps in our culture poems have been supplanted by advertising, which, at its best, is punchy, short and attention grabbing. But unlike poetry, ads generate piles of money.

Still, once in awhile I’d like my gaze to be arrested by something more lofty than a commercial. We humans are, after all, capable of thoughts beyond mere consumerism, and benefit from an occasional foray into the sublime. In fact, poetry is perfectly suited to our attention-fractured world.

Though the loss of public poetry is substantial, I think the situation could be righted without too much trouble.

Recently, I was on a New York City #1 subway train, idly reading the ads on the cars’ walls, as one does, when I came upon a poem, of all things. Sponsored by the MTA Arts and Design and the Poetry Society of America, the poem managed to interrupt my micro-obsessing long enough to, well, inspire.

It’s called What do you believe a poem shd do? by Ntozake Shange, and concludes, that a poem should
“… happen
to you like cold
water or a kiss.” *

Which, actually, is pretty much what it did to me.

* “What Do You Think A Poem Shd Do?” by Ntozake Shange is quoted with permission from Lippincott, Massie McQuilkin.

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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