Literary Hook: Bringing poetry to the people

In the past few decades, poetry has returned to the people. What do I mean by that? If you studied poetry 30 years ago, you STUDIED poetry. You had to study it because it was considered a deeply complex, layered art form that demanded rereading and analysis. All fine and well, except that frankly, most people hated it. Why spend so much time and mental effort to find out what T.S. Eliot meant by “eat a peach”?

We live in a dialectical world that continues to react to the forces within it. Usually, the reaction is in opposition to the prevailing norm, to balance the norm. So, too, with poetry. Besides the proliferation of the Poetry Slam, which recreates poetry as a dynamic, oral art to be shouted, sung and enjoyed, other, perhaps less bombastic forces have been at work shaping the current poetry scene.

Garrison Keillor, with his Writer’s Almanac and Prairie Home Companion, has helped to shape the resurrection of poetry from academia to the public. Besides sharing a breakfast of poems on his daily radio program, Keillor has also created at least two memorable anthologies filled with poems deemed “accessible.” The word accessible when used to describe poetry means: 1. You can probably understand it the first time you read it or hear it. 2. Its theme and content resonate with enough people to be considered “public.” 3. Some people will actually enjoy the poem. 4. It doesn’t mean necessarily that the poem is easy or that it can’t reveal itself further when returned to. 5. It usually means that the poem leaves us with a nugget of wisdom to chew on throughout the day. 6. Now and then, we actually like it.

The anthologies that I am referring to are Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times. I have used Good Poems for “prompts” in my writing group. These poems are truly accessible and yet retain an undeniable virtuosity. Consider the chapter headings: “O, Lord”; “A Day”; “Music”; “Scenes”; “Lovers”; “Day’s Work”; “Language”; “A Good Life”; “Beasts”; “Sons and Daughters”; “Failure”; “Complaint”; “Trips”; “Snow”; “Yellow”; “Lives”; “Elders”; “The End”; “Resurrection.” What’s not to like?

Next week, I will write more about the interesting array of poets represented in this 450-page anthology that includes classics and moderns. Until then, consider treating yourself to this delightful collection of accessible poems.

From the Jan. 25-31, 2006, issue

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