From Neighborhood to Nation: The Poetry Community

text by Carl Little
via the Maine Community Foundation’s Real Time Blog

Back in 1979 while getting my MFA degree at Columbia University, I took a course on the English pentameter tradition with poet Derek Walcott, the future Nobel laureate in literature. Among other assignments, Walcott had all the students memorize poems that we were then obliged to recite in front of the class. I remember spending more time with Edward Thomas’s “Rain” than with just about any other poem in my life. And even after hours of preparation I greeted the exercise with fear and trembling.

The memory of this challenge returned the other day while serving as a judge for the Northern Regional final of the “Poetry Out Loud” competition held at The Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth under the auspices of the Maine Arts Commission. Fifteen students from high schools across the upper half of Maine took turns reciting a range of verse, from such classics as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral in my brain,” to work by contemporary poets like Tony Hoagland, Amiri Baraka, and Diane Wakoski.

As accuracy judge, I was obliged to follow each recitation closely, comparing it with the lines on the page before me. I may have been more nervous than the speakers, intently waiting for the missed word, reversed lines, skipped stanza. Thankfully, the hiccups were very few and very far between and mostly minor.

Maine has an illustrious legacy of poetry, going back at least to Longfellow. Over the last century, we inspired many of the finest poets, from Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edwin Arlington Robinson to Philip Booth and Elizabeth Bishop. Today, Maine bards represent one of the largest percentages of poets featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. On any given morning across America, listeners are hearing a poem by, among others, Christian Barter, Stuart Kestenbaum, Dawn Potter, Kristen Lindquist, and Wesley McNair.

The last-named writer assumed the position of Maine’s Poet Laureate last year and he has been going all out to spread the verse. In addition to editing “Take Heart,” the poetry feature that appears in more than 20 Maine newspapers, McNair launched the Maine Poetry Express, which is now crossing the state, making whistle-stops from York and Chebeague Island to Waterville and Trescott.

And then there’s Bethel-based poet Richard Blanco, who read his “One Today” at Barack Obama’s second inauguration. In a recent segment of MPBN’s “Maine Calling,” Blanco described the challenge of addressing the nation — a rare occasion for a poet in this day and age and one to which he rose brilliantly — but he also related with pleasure how people were reading his inaugural poem in the local beauty salon.

The audience at The Grand the day of the Poetry Out Loud judging included an enthusiastic contingent of family and friends who had traveled to Ellsworth to cheer on their students. They formed their own community, fewer in number but just as enthusiastic as the folks at the high school basketball tournaments.

Poetry has the power to bring people together, from the neighborhood to the nation. What poems do you think can build community?

The Real Time is a community building blog that seeks to provoke thought, encourage conversation, and help friends and colleagues understand what goes on “behind the scenes” at the Maine Community Foundation, a statewide nonprofit created by and for the people of Maine. The foundation is a philanthropic leader in building sustainable and vibrant communities for all Maine people. Real Time uest blogger Carl Little is the Maine Community Foundation’s director of communications and marketing. He is also a poet, an art historian, writer, researcher, curator and lecturer.