Sweeney’s Twitter question evoked memories of poetry on the road

Framed broadside of inaugural poem by James Dickey for Jimmy Carter

Jon M. Sweeney is one of the Twitter folks I follow because his page is always interesting. He’s rarely off-putting as so many other writers can be. Recently he asked a question that brought back memories of poetry on the road, and I was surprised at how the question stuck with me even after I answered, “Nope.”

His question is relevant to the times:

“Do we have a poet today, who as a poet stirs conversation among ordinary people? Like Frost in the 40s and 50s, and perhaps Angelou in the 80s and 90s. (Not Wendell Berry; his primary work is the essay.”

Joining me with a similar answer was another poet and translator I admire, Michael Juster.

After glancing at other replies, I realized something, and I responded to Sweeney:

Just realized answers may depend on region of US and how you define “ordinary people.”

I can attest that if the question is taken literally, the only answer we can come up with is negative.

When my poetry collection was published, I received a small advance. In the contract I signed, there was a stipulation regarding marketing. I had to help market and promote the book. That was fair. My publisher was a small regional press investing money in my books, and my efforts couldn’t stop once the books were shipped to stores.

I lost count of how many poetry readings and talks I did in various states, even doing one in Hawaii as a side effort when my husband and I traveled there for a meeting. I often opened my talk by asking people to name their favorite poets. A handful of attendees would always volunteer, and in every instance, not a single poet named was alive.

I found this troubling. Even the incredible feat Billy Collins pulled off, in addition to his stellar efforts as US Poet Laureate, could not inject poetry into the American psyche the way it resided there in the 1940s and 50s.

On the one hand it says a lot about the splintering of the poetry community today, and the negativity towards formal poetry as well. I have seen editors declare, “NO RHYMING POETRY!” Isn’t that silly and academically xenophobic? I think it is.

I recall how much criticism Collins drew from many in the academic establishment largely comprising what I came to call poetry mills at leading universities. I think we had better literature before MFAs became revenue drivers for liberal arts colleges, but I mean no more to those MFAers than they mean to me. The nuanced snark in ‘MFAers’ is quite deliberate.

It may be that my circle is more of a mixed bag than the circles many writers move in. When you say “ordinary people,” I think of my own circle of course, as do all the others who answered Sweeney’s question. I have brought up specific poems in different conversations, and I have yet to find a single person regardless of educational status or institution who recognized even a high profile poet like Ted Kooser.

Of all the poets I’ve mentioned in conversations, the late James Dickey is probably the one most have heard of, but that is because of the film adaptation of his novel Deliverance.

In general conversations, do you ever bring up specific poems or poets? Does anyone do that?

If the answer is no, you are the norm, if you consider yourself an “ordinary person,” a description that fits me perfectly too.

Featured Photo: Framed broadside of poem presented by James Dickey and given to selected guests at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter. (Photo: Indie Art South)

(Kay B. Day/Oct. 12, 2020)

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