Monday, November 21, 2011

The Somerville Poetry Project

I live in Somerville, Massachusetts, a little town next to Cambridge. My wife and I moved here mainly because the rents were low, but over the last several years we've developed a love for the place, from our plot in the community garden to the Chinese takeout place down the street. About a year ago, a friend told me that Somerville gave grants to writers. I don't normally try for such things, but I sent in a few pieces and several months later they told me I had gotten one. The Council's only requirement was that I complete a community benefit project. A meeting with some other grant recipients to work on a project together predictably didn't amount to anything, so I came up with an idea on my own. In case the concept is useful to anyone else, here it is.

For most of my life, I was indifferent to poetry. I liked words in pretty much every other form, but something terrible seemed to happen when you spaced them out. In ninth grade, I remember our English teacher gave us a poem -- I think it was by Robert Frost -- about (I thought) snakes slithering down a hill. The teacher asked what the poem was about; before I could chime in with my snake answer, someone said it was about the sun coming out and melting the snow.

This was apparently the correct answer. I read the poem again; it still seemed to be about snakes. I decided then that I was going to keep my mouth shut about poetry, because it was sneaky stuff with no purpose other than making the uninitiated demonstrate their stupidity.

I held to this opinion through most of school. One exception: I remember being shaken by "Dulce et Decorum Est," because we hadn't ever read it in class; the poem just appeared on a test. I read it twice, and remember sitting stunned and feeling the words work inside me, until eventually I roused myself and went about labeling the rhyme scheme and stresses. Completing the test defused my interest; I didn't seek out any other Wilfred Owen. The only pleasure I got from poetry in those years was the sense that I had extracted the meaning that the author had, for mysterious reasons, decided to hide.

Eventually, though, I discovered that the actual problem was that I had only been reading poems in school. Poems don't offer themselves to people approaching with weapons in hand; they leave a husk of dry meaning behind and then disappear down some burrow. It took several years out of school for me to approach poetry unarmed, with no papers to be written, when I made the attempt for new reasons: I wanted to feel cultured and to impress women. The muses considered these reasonably worthy motives and consented to brush against my hand.

A few years ago, when I was reading a lot of Milosz, I discovered his poetry anthology, A Book of Luminous Things. Certain poems in that book began to affect me in a profound way, and I finally understood why verse, until recently, had been acknowledged by almost all writers as the supreme literary art. Poets I had read in school with almost total incomprehension, like Hopkins, began to make a great deal of sense. And it seemed a shame that so many people who love to read never even consider sitting down with a book of poetry.

Some of this is simply taste, but some of it, I am convinced, is that the art form remains freighted with anxiety from school, where students are given extremely difficult work much too soon and then forced to decipher and analyze it.

So: I thought, why not present some great poems in a tension-free environment? My idea was to make booklets of some of my favorite poems in the public domain and leave them around Somerville. I typeset the poems, printed the pages, bound the booklets with waxed thread, and left them where people would find them: coffee shops, bus stops, libraries, and assorted park benches.

Inside each book are several blank pages, with a note encouraging the reader to write a few words in the space and leave the book elsewhere: a poem, or song lyrics, or any words that seem worth writing down to them. Frankly, I expect a few pages will be filled with obscenities, but that's fine. Hopefully, the books will make the rounds for a few months before wear and tear, weather, and carelessness remove most of them from circulation.

I'm not sure yet if it's been a success. All I know is that the booklets aren't where I left them anymore. A few local outlets were nice enough to write about the project. It was, in any case, a pleasure to spend some time re-reading favorite poets, and discovering a few new ones, and to think about what kinds of poems could communicate with a large group of people.

The arts have always felt threatened in America, and this is especially true in hard times. Poems don't feed anyone or help pay the rent. They do, however, tell us something about how hunger and poverty have been borne in the past, and borne with dignity. The dignity does not lie in the poet prescribing certain actions or responses -- equally great poems can call forth anger and calm, stoicism and despair. The dignity is in the language, the sense that the sorrow has been shaped and transformed.

There is comfort, too, in joining our individual fate with countless others. To quote Robinson Jeffers, "prose can discuss matters of the moment; poetry must deal with things that a reader two thousand years away could understand and be moved by." In poems, I feel how little humanity has changed, and how much I can share with a Tamil woman in the twelfth century or a Chinese bureaucrat in the eighth. This sense of fellowship is both a steadying and enlarging influence, and an antidote to the sense of meaninglessness produced by too much throwaway culture.

I remember a passage in Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, where the narrator describes the teaching of literature as trying to sell a real diamond on the street for a quarter. Almost everyone will pass it by, because who among the uninitiated could believe that the diamond was genuine, and that a mind and spirit could be enlivened for a lifetime because of a few old pages and some quiet attention?

Well, my thought is that you stop trying so hard to sell the diamond. Just leave it somewhere, and hope that a few people might pick it up and turn it around in their hands. If anyone would like a copy of the PDF, feel free to send an e-mail to I tried to have a mix of the famous and fairly obscure, so hopefully there's something for everyone.

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