While Rita Dove was poet laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, she received thousands of letters from people who wanted to talk about poetry. One woman told Ms. Dove that she thought poetry should be taught to children before they could read, before "they could learn to be afraid of it. Poetry," the letter said, "was making the language your own."
The sheer tonnage of those letters signifies a poetry renaissance, according to Ms. Dove. "You have poetry in the universities. You have poetry in the high schools, which is new. You have poetry in the communities. You even have poetry in the D.C. buses and in the New York subway. You can't keep a good thing down."
Whether poetry is also experiencing a renaissance in Baltimore depends on whom you talk to. There's general agreement that there is a proliferation of poetry readings, literary journals and small presses. But not everyone believes that what is spoken and written is truly poetry.
The debate has heated up partly because so much poetry is being spoken and written today, and partly because of Bill Moyers' latest PBS series, "The Language of Life," which consisted of interviews with, and performances by, 18 poets. The final episode in the series airs Friday. Proclaiming a renaissance of public poetry, Mr. Moyers says he wants to return poetry to its physical roots, to the time before print limited poetry's magic.
The problem is that many poets believe that print enhances poetry's magic. Shakespeare, after all, said that a poet "gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name," meaning by that a word on a page.
Public or performance poetry, which Mr. Moyers touts, is often seen as more performance and less poetry. The multimedia mix of video images, rock music and poetry on MTV is an example. Going along with the trend are the poems read at music festivals, such as Lollapalooza, that offer a stage for poetry readings. Even Maya Angelou's reading at President Clinton's inauguration is widely accepted as having been a good performance but not a good poem.
What's good about the proliferation of poetry, many local poets say, is the widespread attention that poetry is getting. Carolyn Forche and Lucille Clifton, two nationally recognized Maryland poets who appear on the Bill Moyers series, argue that the show gives poetry back to the people.
"Poetry is a many-colored self," says Ms. Clifton. "It is serious. But it can also be celebrated: Whitman, after all, said, 'I hear America singing.' "
Poets such as Mark Strand, the Elliott Coleman Professor of Poetry at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and U.S. poet laureate from 1990 to 1991, say that poetry is much more than a performance. Nor is Mr. Strand sure that there is a poetry renaissance: "If there is, I'm delighted," he says. "If there isn't, poetry will continue.
"Getting to know a poet's work is like reading a new language," he says. Poetry is not the breezy entertainment that sometimes occurs at a poetry reading, he adds. Poetry is what is central to our lives.
The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars have long been central to literary life in Baltimore. Hopkins' graduates are the force behind nearly every creative writing program, literary magazine, and small and large press in the area.
Established in the 1940s by the late Elliott Coleman, the seminars provide a year of intense work for their writers (who score heavily on the side of the argument that favors poetry in print).
In addition, the seminars feature monthly readings by well-established authors, such as Josephine Jacobsen. Former poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and a Baltimore poet, Ms. Jacobsen, at 86, has just seen her new and collected poems, "In the Crevice of Time," published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Ms. Jacobsen agrees that poetry isn't merely entertainment. Yet, she says, some parts of the poetry renaissance merely entertain.
"Some of the work I saw on Moyers' show will evaporate the next minute," she says. People, however, are looking for a way to say something, and it's wrong to silence that, she adds.
People are also buying books of poetry. Commercial success is one reason that so many readings occur in bookstores, such as Lambda Rising, Lammas Books, Raven Bookshop, Bibelot and Borders. David Kriebel, editor of Lite magazine, reports in Lite that there is "an average of at least two readings per week with an attendance of 25 to 30 people."
Increasing the appetite
Bookstores not only sponsor poetry readings, but also feed the public's appetite for poetry books and increase the desire to hear poetry read. It's a symbiotic relationship.
Borders, which holds "Meter's Running," a series of monthly readings attended by as many as 80 people at a time, reports brisk sales of poetry books and periodicals. "Borders Towson is in the top 10 percent of Borders stores nationally in poetry sales," according to Borders publicist Chris Brenchley, who says the reading series has increased poetry sales by 35 percent.
"There's always been so much poetry here in Baltimore," comments Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler. "I'm surprised that there's something called a poetry renaissance," she says, but adds: "There's so much texture to Baltimore itself; it encourages artists."
"The Baltimore audience is with you 100 percent," according to Kendra Kopelke, writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore and co-editor of the literary magazine Passager. Ms. Kopelke laughingly recalls reciting a poem about a hamster at a reading. A woman came up afterward and referred to the line "His ears flared like bowling pins" and confessed that she would never see her hamster in the same way again.
"You don't want to shut people up," Ms. Kopelke says. "Language is meant to get an immediate reaction."
Sometimes that reaction is unexpected. Mr. Kriebel recalls an audience collapsing in laughter when a fire engine siren sounded as a woman was reading erotic poetry. Kim Beavers recalls booking Lucille Clifton for a cozy evening in the Cafe Diana's small space and having so many people show up that some were literally climbing in the windows.
It's a safe bet that an acclaimed poet such as Ms. Clifton will present fine poetry. But does performance poetry always have a place in the canon of American literature? Is there a difference between performance poetry and written poems?
Bruce Jacobs, former host of readings at Irina's Cafe, puts it this way: "At its worst, performance poetry is cloying, superficial and self-aggrandizing. But the same is true of poetry on the page."
What's important for Joyce Brown, poetry editor of City Paper, is quality. An instructor at the Hopkins Seminars, Ms. Brown receives too many poems that have very little imagery or music. Art starts with an impulse, she says, but it needs to be crafted. People forget such essential principles in the proliferation of performance poetry.
Award-winning Baltimore poet Natasha Saje said in a recent interview that it can take weeks, sometimes months or years, to make a poem.
James Taylor, editor of Dolphin-Moon Press, agrees. He dislikes readings where someone says, "I wrote this poem as I was sitting here." As Mr. Taylor puts it, "Language can do a lot more than they're letting it do."
Not enough poems are polished, and too few are made well, according to poet Moira Egan, who believes that practitioners of an art should be aware of the masters who have proceeded them.
One of those masters, Sister Maura Eichner, poet and professor emeritus at the College of Notre Dame, advocates learning the rules before you break them. "If you spend half an hour writing down an emotional high," she says, "don't think you have a finished work."
Poetry from jelly jars
Rosemary Klein, editor of the Maryland Poetry Review, says even if readings aren't always good, because of the readings renaissance, "Poetry has been established as vital, viable and permanent. Whether people realize it or not, poetry has become communal in Baltimore, with poetry coming out of every possible container, from jelly jars to Coke bottles to Lenox vases."
Although Clarinda Harriss, editor of the New Poets Series and professor of English at Towson State University, is sure there's a renaissance in the public performance of poetry, she's not sure that what's performed is always poetry.
But she advises people to lighten up about the Bill Moyers poetry show and about the controversies surrounding poetry.
"Don't forget," she says, "according to Wordsworth, it's the poet's job to give pleasure."
THE METER IS RUNNING
Literary magazines and presses are sprouting up all over Maryland. Here's a list of what they print, courtesy of the now-dormant Punchtown Fishwrap. Write to the addresses below for press catalogs, publishing guidelines or more information.
* Abbey: Abbey Cheapochapbooks
5360 Fallriver Row Court
Columbia, Md. 21044
(poetry chapbooks, quarterly journal)
* Antietam Review
Washington County Arts Council,
82 W. Washington St.
Hagerstown, Md. 21740
(annual journal; don't submit from April to September)
* Apathy Press
2924 E. Coldspring Lane
Baltimore, Md. 21214
* Dancing Shadow Press
P.O. Box 2843
Baltimore, Md. 21234
(quarterly journal, chapbooks)
* Dolphin-Moon Press
P.O. Box 22262
Baltimore, Md. 21203
(poetry chapbooks, signatures, journals, more)
* Dragonfly Press
2726 Maryland Ave.
Baltimore, Md. 21218
(poetry chapbooks, monthly reading schedule)
* Feminist Studies
c/o Women's Studies Program
University of Maryland
College Park, Md. 20742
(publishes three times a year)
P.O. Box 30906
Bethesda, Md. 20814
(books of poetry, fiction,interviews, more)
* Ground Zero
P.O. Box 21077
Baltimore, Md. 21228
* Jungle Man Press
211 W. Mulberry St.
Baltimore, Md. 21201
* Lite Circle Books
P.O. Box 26162
Baltimore, Md. 21210
(poetry chapbooks, quarterly newspaper)
* LMNO Press
P.O. Box 862
Westminster, Md. 21157
(prints yearly poetry journal)
* Maryland Poetry Review
Catonsville, Md. 21228
(biannual literary journal of poetry and fiction)
* New Poets Series Inc., Chestnut Hill Press
541 Piccadilly Road
Baltimore, Md. 21204
(prestigious poetry books, occasional journals)
Department of English
Frostburg State University
Frostburg, Md. 21532
(annual literary journal)
* Oracle Poetry; Association of African Writers
Rising Star Publishers
P.O. Box 3883
Langley Park, Hyattsville, Md. 20783
(quarterly literary journal)
* Passager: Journal of Remembrance & Discovery
University of Baltimore
1420 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, Md. 21201-5779
(quarterly of fiction, poetry, essays, interviews)
* Paycock Press
P.O. Box 57206
Washington, D.C. 20037
(poetry books, chapbooks, Gargoyle magazine)
* The Pearl
2840 St. Paul St.
Baltimore, Md. 21218
(annual literary journal; submit September-February)
* The Plastic Tower
P.O. Box 702
Bowie, Md. 20718
(quarterly literary journal with black and white artwork)
* Shattered Wig Press
2407 Maryland Ave., Apt. 1
Baltimore, Md. 21218
(poetry chapbooks, literary journal)
* Smiley Face Press
JTC 2005 Englewood Ave.
Baltimore, Md. 21207
(poetry newsletter, books)
* Smudge Art 'Zine
Columbia Place Plaza
8775-M Centre Park Drive,
Columbia, Md. 21045
(poems, fiction, lyrics, black and white photos, art)
* The Story Company
P.O. Box 38176
Baltimore, Md. 21231
(fiction, short stories, poems)
* Tropos Press
2840 St. Paul St.
Baltimore, Md. 21218-4311
(poetry chapbooks, anthologies, The Pearl)
* Yous Magazine
3019 Abell Ave.
Baltimore, Md. 21218
(poetry, essays, fiction, art)