You’ve Been Underestimating Poetry
“I enjoy listening to poetry; simply hearing it and maybe even being a bit bewildered by it.”
– Stephen Young, Poetry Foundation
Words matter and they can bring us together. An often alluded to and profound statement by which we can find a whole lot of truth.
When it comes to tying together all that seems broken, sometimes we feel as though there are too many hurdles and ‘what if’s’ that we choose not to entertain the idea at all. But what if one of the redeeming tools for unity amidst society and the hurts that have materialized could be found in poetry? What if a few verses could help another person see a point-of-view that they had never considered before? What If reaching across the aisle was less about debate and more about literary devices? What if we have been sitting on this treasure all along, only banishing it to the back burner for all this time?
Here’s what Stephen Young, Program Director with Poetry Foundation, could tell us in a recent one-on-one:
DC LIFE MAGAZINE: How did the poetry Foundation come to be?
STEPHEN YOUNG: It grew out of Poetry Magazine which was founded in Chicago in 1912 by Harriet Monroe. It is the oldest monthly publication devoted to poetry in the country. It’s never missed an issue. In 2002, we got a substantial gift from Ruth Lilly, one of the heiress’ to the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune. She gave us around $200 million dollars. After going from an annual budget of $650,000, it was a well beyond a major gift! It enabled us to start the Poetry Foundation to broaden all programs for the benefits of poets and poetry. It’s an even more wonderful story because none of us ever met Ruth. The moral here is obviously to always be kind to strangers.
DC: What is Poetry Out Loud?
SY: It’s a yearly national high school poetry recitation contest that we do in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts. It works a little like a spelling bee, but instead of spelling words, kids are memorizing and reciting poems from an anthology of poem collections. It could be from Shakespeare and Bradstreet to Billy Collins and Rita Dove. The program starts in the classroom, and then the classroom winner goes to school competitions, then those winners go to regional competitions, regional winners go to state and then every state sends their champion to DC for the national finals. They took place this year on April 24th-26th at George Washington University. There is over $100,000 in scholarship awards up for grabs. So these students really get to practice sharing their poetry with teachers, classrooms, family and maybe even their pets (laughs).
DC: Some might say that poetry can be hard to understand on a mainstream level. Are we in an era now where poetry writers might need to create work that is more accessible for the reader?
SY: I’m sure that would be true of some poets, but not all. I think there are many wonderful poets out there who simply write what they feel compelled to write and don’t consider accessibility. Poems often have an organic life of their own. There are a lot of poems I love that I can’t particular say are accessible themselves. I enjoy listening to poetry; simply hearing it and maybe even being a bit bewildered by it.
In the last three decades there is a lot more performance poetry and slam poetry and it truly has become its own entity and art form. A lot of poetry is direct and I would say often more immediately accessible than other kinds of poetry. Then, however, we have traditional poets who aren’t so obscure. Think about Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, they both have huge audiences. Perhaps, because their poems have a sort of immediacy and payoff.
DC: Is it true that Poetry Foundation seems to be open to poetic style, not just traditional or free verse?
SY: Very true. This goes back to the origins of the magazines when one of the editorial principles was to publish the best poetry that came to us. The magazine became sort of infamous for being very receptive to poetry which would later go on to be known as ‘modernism’. The magazine published T.S Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore. Really, from its origin, this organization has had a commitment to celebrating poetry in all of its varieties.
DC: Can you name some poets who are doing remarkable things with poetry right now?
SY: Jamaal May is great, MacArthur Genius A. E. Stallings, who has been in magazines regularly for the last many years. United States Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, Timothy Donnelly, Terrance Hayes. There are many others as we are living in a truly special time for poetry, so many vital and vibrant methods of experimentation.