Before I attended the American Library Association Conference in New Orleans last month, I attempted to read a collection of poems by Robert Pinsky but failed to get past the fourth or fifth poem. I was trying to prepare for the conference and had several other books that I was already reading. There was a lot of gardening to be done, and I had just been given new music CDs. I just did not have the heart or the time.
At ALA, I heard Pinsky on the Live @ Your Library stage. He read several of his poems and spoke about his writing. He introduced himself to us, and I recorded his voice in my brain.
When I got back to my library, I checked out Jersey Rain: Poems. In it I found three of the poems that he read to us in New Orleans. They worked as keys to many of the other poems in the collection. As I read I heard his voice step in, giving cadence and emphasis to the words and phrases. Reading most of the poems was easy.
Many readers do not relate or comprehend poetry they way they do novels. Our culture conditions us to be fiction readers, as we hear stories read to us as children. Some children's books are in verse, but prose dominates and verse mostly disappears after third or fourth grade. Later literature classes include some poetry, but it becomes exceptional experience instead of daily experience. Even the narratives of film and television support the reading of novels, teaching story and providing images to connect to novel content.
There are some attempts to bring poetry into the out-of-book experience of readers. A few poetry books with CDs, such as Poetry Speaks, are available. Pinsky's An Invitation to Poetry includes a DVD of people reading their favorite poems. Billy Collins' Poetry 180 project aims to have poem a day read to high school students. National Public Radio has an RSS feed for poetry. Garrison Keillor's daily A Writer's Almanac podcast always includes him reading a poem.
We need more. Have the television networks considered Poetry Idol?
Public libraries can help. They should continue to collect poetry and should especially look for audiovisual presentations. They should link to poetry websites. They should present poetry programs.
In the poem "Jersey Rain," Pinsky describes rain that is always present even when it is dry. Poetry should be so ever present.