Some 50 years ago, the great poet Theodore Roethke wrote "My heart keeps open house, My doors are widely swung." And so it is here in Baltimore that the community of poetry keeps a continuous open house, its doors widely swung to an ever-swelling audience of practitioners, participants, readers and listeners.
A couple of years ago, Joe Somoza, a professor at New Mexico State University, traveled America, reading his poems. At the end of his year-long tour, he concluded that the most receptive cities to the charms of poetry were Portland, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Baltimore. Somoza was delighted that in Baltimore his work and the work of others was really listened to. Baltimoreans he found wore their hearts on their sleeves; they came right up to the poet, pulled up a bar stool and talked. "An intelligent unsophistication" is what Michael Fallon, co-editor of Singing Man Press, terms what informs our city's embrace of poetry.
Baltimoreans have realized that poetry is an inexpensive way to come by community. More and more people are beginning to acknowledge that in poetry, they may realize a sense of connection, engagement and inclusion not readily available in a world whose pace rapidly accelerates, leaving many marginalized and isolated.
In Baltimore, there are as many ways into poetry as there are bars, churches and corner groceries. The written word abounds in books, chapbooks, broadsides, anthologies, papers, and newsletters; many of them published by local presses such as the New Poets Series, Stonewall, Chestnut Hills, Apathy, Tropos, Electric, Icarus, Dolphin-Moon, Jungle Man, Dragonfly, Lite Circle Inc., Dancing Shadow and Singing Man. Magazines and journals such as Pearl, Dancing Shadow Review, Facedown, Shattered Wig Review, Ant, Late Knocking, Articulate, Maryland Poetry Review and Passager flourish. And all over the city and into its surrounding suburbs, coffeehouses and bookstores host poetry readings where a smorgasbord of poetry written by professionals to beginners can be sampled almost any night of the week.
What accounts for the fact that all over the city poetry pops up like colorful umbrellas on a rainy day, no matter the season or weather? As poet and teacher Diane Scharper points out, those who write and those who sell the word have amiably married: "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." Blair Ewing, producer of the local cable show Poetry Jam, suggests that in a society that becomes "more and more technology based, there's a need to reassert the primacy of the written word."
In Baltimore, everyone has the opportunity to reassert that primacy. Many come to realize the energy of poetry in the classroom through the inspiration of such talented writers as Elizabeth Spires, Sister Maura Eichner, Barrett Warner and Lia Purpura. Poetry readings often start with the traditional "featured" readers, like beloved local wordsmiths Kendra Kopelke, Dan Cuddy, David Beaudouin, Robert Cooperman, Marta Knobloch, Jenny Keith, or Bruce Jacobs, followed by "open" readings, which feature such talented but less well-known writers as Richard Lane, Tom Chambers, Patti Kinlock, Shane Lynch or Sam Beard.
At a recent poetry reading, Ray Zelleni, reading his work publicly for the first time, reminded listeners that "a soul is but a flicker of passion/a flammable wick." Afterward, audience member and non-poet Alice Aldrich spoke of how "thrilling it is to see someone share that private space." For Aldrich, as for many others, "the shared experience of risk-taking fosters a sense of identity."
The emotions of poetry are easily shared, even by those who think poetry is the language of a foreign country. A college student, Robert Cole, who is a landscape surveyor, recently read Robert Frost's "Home Burial," a bittersweet narrative of a husband and wife fighting their grief over the death of their first-born. In response, Cole, taking literature as a required course, wrote: "As I was reading this poem, I started to feel as if I were there with the couple. I began to feel their grief and even felt tears develop in my eyes. The author was able to bring me into his poem as if I were there witnessing it."
To bring the reader into the poem to witness has been the ambition of a roster of Baltimore poets, among whom number Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Karl Shapiro and Adrienne Rich. There is no easier way than reading to slip into the elegant intelligence that informs the poems of Josephine Jacobsen, the honest, profound illumination that sparks the poems of Lucille Clifton or the deep and sensitive knowing that flows through the poems of Daniel Mark Epstein.
Popular wisdom inaccurately consigns poetry to the sidelines. Poets are invitors. Anyone who willingly enters the world of poetry stands to return a richer person, as those who have entered the work of such local, award-winning poets as Julia Wendell, Natasha Saje, Michael Collier, David Bergman and Clarinda Harriss attest.
Stemming the eclipse
Poetry flourishes here because Baltimore is a grass-roots city, not a bedroom community where the life of the word finds inhospitable soil. Festivals like Artscape and the newly organized Baltimore Book Fair, as well as organizations from the Governor's Office of Special Projects, Maryland State Arts Council and the Mayor's Committee On Arts and Culture to the Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society and the Baltimore Writers Alliance, provide venues and funding that ensure the power of poetry will not be eclipsed.
Traditionally, the finest poets in Maryland have been honored as the State's Poet Laureate, a recognition such poets as Linda Pastan and Roland Flint have utilized to bring their evocative and accessible poetry to schoolchildren and citizens of all ages throughout the state. In her poem "Attempt at Dialogue," Pastan captures the breadth of the writer the audience would be entertained by as "The poet/who sees in the falling plum leaves/all the places the wind/might take them." When Flint's poem "Prayer" was presented to the pope on his recent visit many Baltimoreans were moved .
Much has been written about the uplifting nature of poems, but in a field where the literary scene can be like academic politics - so vicious because the stakes are so low - the Baltimore scene transcends those lowly stakes through its poets, who are true not just to their craft but to their community. There is a poetry that seeks fame and fortune, and the poets who produce it must be singular in their energies. But Baltimore has produced many who couple their talent with generosity.
That poetry spreads through this city at speeds faster than computers can be booted up is due to the efforts of those who wear many hats and juggle many full plates. The infrastructure of this city's poetry is extended to all its citizens through the inclusionary energies of people like David Kriebel, Sam Schmidt, Tom Reyes, Minas, Linda Richardson, Allan Reese, Drake and Eleanor Cunningham, David and Margaret Diorio, Gary Blankenburg, Junious Wilson, Sam Nell, Bob Smith, Barbara Simon, Kim Carlin and James Taylor. These people build the roads, maintain the roads, plow the roads (even when there's no snow) so that even the most private poet has access to public travel.
And though they won't be memorialized through a yearly rose and bottle of cognac, those people and establishments that imprinted and enlarged Baltimore's poetry scene will not be forgotten. Among those we'll mourn are Al Rose, Joe Cardarelli, Michael Egan, Devy Bendit, New Breezes, 7th Son Press, Punchtown Fishwrap, CAIM, Arts in Progress, Hard Crabs, the Bauhouse, Cafe Diana, Irina's Cafe and The Angel.
Ralph Waldo Emerson knew that poetry "has an architecture of its own," and Baltimore claims and proclaims that intricate architecture as fiercely and proudly as its beehive hairdos, marble steps, painted screens and rowhouses.
Rosemary Klein is editor of Maryland Poetry Review, president of the State Poetry and Literary Society and teaches creative writing at Dundalk Community College. She has published work in several anthologies in the United States and abroad.