Louie Crew, Ph.D. D.D., D.D., D.H.L.
Emeritus Professor
Rutgers University

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Whetting the Public's Appetite for Poetry

by Louie Crew

First appeared as a Guest Editorial in Small Press Review 20.5 (1988): 3.
© 1988 by Small Press Review; © 2004 by Louie Crew

As U.S. citizens increasingly involve ourselves in the world beyond our borders, I hope we will demand more poetry in our nation's life, especially when we see poetry's importance south of us and in much of the political life of Asia.

Millions of U. S. citizens who say, "I don't like classical music," spend dozens of hours each year letting classical themes manipulate their emotions in b-grade movies.

Even more people seem unaware of how much poetry they consume, some of it good, much of it terrible, most of it powerful. Witness the hours many people bury themselves in pop lyrics, especially through music video. Witness millions of dollars people pay for baubles that some poet pimps for Madison Avenue.
I have sometimes snuck poetry into a text without telling my audience. Usually people cite those parts when they tell me what they liked; but if I name them as poetry, some look wounded, as if I have hit them on the nose with a powder puff.

Many reject Teachers Reading Poetry, not poetry itself. Recently one of my students got himself and me into hot water when he analyzed the personal libraries of the English Department. They gladly let him into their offices to admire their collections but were scandalized when I circulated copies of his clever paper. He documented what we might have guessed: Few owned poetry books. Even fewer owned books by poets not long dead. The few who did, chose a living poet whom the academy has already begun to canonize.

The head of my department attacked me viciously: "This kind of assignment undermines student trust of the faculty." Indeed it should! I applaud my student's courage.

Poets ourselves have to take some of the blame. All of us have grimaced through many a monotone for page after page. I forgive the poet less when the language of the poetry itself is superb and potentially accessible: why profane our ancient heritage? Imagine a scop trying to keep the attention of Beowulf's companions merely by sustaining one inflection, especially when the scop pilfered the inflection from some other poet, like Dylan Thomas! An audience rightly rejects even the good minstrel if she insults them and keeps her best tunes inside her head or jots them on staff bars only for other minstrels.

A few people are beginning to get it right. Consider Marc Kelly Smith, who organizes readings at the Green Mill, a seedy bar in Ravenswood, a neighborhood on Chicago's northside. Al Capone's ghost lingers about the place, as a jaded nimbus for the gaudy plaster nude in a corner. Smith knows that the 100+ persons who come each Sunday night want something that they cannnot get merely by reading texts at home.

Smith uses three types of readings: the open mike, the invited poets, and The Slams. Smith restricts performers for the open mike to single short pieces. He allows invited poets no more than ten minutes unless he has had a chance to test them with an audience. The Slams audition with a punch. Contestants, two at a time, each read a poem. The emcee encourages the audience to hiss or applaud; judges respond to the audience as much as to the poem. The winner of each round receives $10 and the opportunity to go to the next round.

They sound grim, but if you know the ground rules, The Slams challenge you. Not for meditative parlor cantos, they encourage lyrics, dramatic monologues, and the like.

People choose this bar because they like poetry, not just booze; but they like for you to like them too. You can win with a bad poem if you perform it well, and can lose with "Fern Hill" if you merely mouthe it.

But what about those that would never go near such a place? At other venues, I have frequently snuck poetry into a text without telling my audience. Usually people cite those parts when they tell me what they liked; but if I name them as poetry, some look wounded, as if I have hit them on the nose with a powder puff.

Homophobia formidably throttles poetry. Someone should launch a new national organization, Poetry Is For Sissies--to reclaim turf, yes, but more important, to call the bluff by which many hetero males allow bullies to deprive them and their girlfriends of every human being's birthright. I hope they react, "No, poetry is for everyone!"