It’s Meant to Be Read: Making Poetry Public

by Marilyn Zelke-Windau

Scrawled with a driftwood stick on sand at a Kohler/Andrae State Park beach:

                             Time flows.
                              It is a constant like these waves.
                              I childishly splash my feet.
                             Age pushes me to shore.

Someone left these words, a poem, for me and other visitors from my town, this state, our country, the world to read. It was a gift made public by an anonymous author. That author did not know how many people would see these words, remember these words, before wind and water erased them. The author simply cared to share with the common reader, the public.

Poetry is meant to be read. Too often it is entombed in books on shelves in our homes or in libraries. Poetry books may be often dusted, but their words are rarely eyed. We as poets and poetry lovers need to change that. We need to make poetry public, revisit poetry as popular, a gift to the common reader.

As a little girl, my finger, guided by my mother’s hand, followed the words of nursery rhymes and poems from “A Child’s Garden of Verses” as she read aloud to me. My father recited his favorites to us often. I found later that I had memorized his earlier memorization of Longfellow’s “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded in moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight.” 

In the early decades of the 1900’s, when they started school, poetry was popular.  It was taught to develop a love for language and for writing, to foster precision of thought, to hone observation by the senses, to hear the musical rhythm of words, to create emotional connections with others. Children repeated verses on their walks home from school, to the fishing pond, and to the corner store. They regaled parents after supper and relatives on Sundays after church. Poetry could be found in women’s magazines, in town newspapers, in church bulletins. Oratorical contests were held in which poetry was a mainstay for public competition.

Later in the twentieth century, poetry, mainly through folk songs, found itself in the public realm via social protests for civil rights, gender rights, and workers’ rights and against wars, poverty, and environmental degradation. In recent years, more public venues for poetry have emerged. Social network sites and blogs have been created, as well as partnership projects such as “Poetry Everywhere,” which brings poetry readings to screens on Milwaukee County buses, “Poetry at the Market,” which features poems with related recipes, and the traveling “Verse-O-Matic” dispenser of poems.

What can we, as individual poets, groups of poets, and  poetry lovers do to further poetry in public places?

The following ideas are suggestions.

*Poetry on paper bags Students  at the elementary school where I taught got their message across to the local community by doing art work, posters, or written stories and having them glued or stapled to grocery bags. The public would then get this message to take home with their flour, meat, and bananas. It wouldn't have to be grocery bags. It could be a local bookstore's bags, or another local storeowner’s bags.

*Poetry as computer wallpaper You could develop a site where poems in various fonts could become your desktop wallpaper, constantly in view, with timed rotation on your screen.

*Poetry bumper stickers We all try to decipher license plate sayings. Why not read a haiku on a bumper sticker?

*Poetry decals Imprinted on clear plastic, poems could be affixed to windows of homes, in front entry ways for the postal worker or UPS delivery person to read. These decals could be placed in children’s bedrooms on their mirror. Font size could vary, depending on the chosen site.

*Poetry on dishes Transferware techniques for ceramics have been around for years. A set of dishes, or coffee mugs, would be suitable for everyday use or for gifts. Transferred onto ceramic tiles, poetry could be found in kitchens, bathrooms, subways. There are even decals available for use on glass which can be fused for permanence to become windowpanes or art pieces.

*A kite festival of poetry Written by families or individuals on long streamers of paper, poems could then be attached to kites. These kites could then be redistributed, the poems shared, and the kites flown. This would be appropriate for a birthday, engagement, wedding, retirement, reunion, or seasonal party.

*Poetry as family tradition To expand on the kite idea, a “we are all gathered here” poem can become a tradition, a family offering at a baptism, a wedding, Thanksgiving. Each year a different family member could write or choose a poem which exemplifies the occasion.

*Poetry as sermons in churches Ministers could be invited to plan a poetry Sunday service, perhaps featuring a well known poet. Church members could also share by reading their poems or the works of others.

*Poet pen pals Elementary school children could pick a school somewhere in the world and send a monthly poem they like or have written to another classroom. They could also do this via SKYPE and be able to read their poems, hear others read poems, and see the student authors.

*Poems written in dust on tabletops, on steamy mirrors in spas, gym shower rooms, or bar restrooms

*Poetry on curbs of towns/cities When I was in high school, we painted windows of downtown businesses as a part of our football homecoming activities. We also wrote slogans, messages on the length of the curbs with chalk. Chalk messages are visible on sidewalks of college campuses for fun and for announcements of events and meetings. Why not poems?

*Poetry donations Bookmarks featuring local poets’ work or poetry magazine subscriptions could be donated to public and school libraries to increase visibility of poetry, promote readership of poetry.

*Poetry on television news PBS News Hour often features poetry which relates to the times, the news. How wonderful if ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX affiliates would give air time to poetry once a month, once a quarter, once a year! We could inundate them with requests for this. Poems could also find a place at the bottom of the TV screen as an alternative to school closings, event cancellations, breaking news during good weather and good times.

*Poetry on cruise ships A daily poem could be available alongside the Sudoku game or trivia puzzle in the ship’s library, or run across the wall monitor in red dotted letters instead of, or in addition to news feed and stock market quotations.

*Poetry in hotels, motels, and B&B’s What a nice way to welcome a weary traveler: a printed sheet or booklet of poems by local poets placed in their room.

*Poetry on placemats At breakfast and lunchtime, many restaurants use paper placemats. Poems printed there could be read while waiting for the food order.

*Poetry postings Henri de Toulouse Latrec designed and tacked posters all over Paris to advertise dances at the Moulin Rouge. There are many places where papers can be posted in  towns and cities: bulletin boards at grocery stores, libraries, coffee houses, church entry ways, art centers, fitness gyms, to name a few. There are not many kiosk venues in our country, although there are some in commercial malls. Telephone poles come to mind. Permission may be necessary to post.  

*Do it yourself poetry Magnetic letters and words could be placed on metallic sheets in odd locations to invite writing poetry. Alternatively, chalkboards with chalk could be used, or marker boards with markers, mounted at bus stops, train stations, doctor and dentist offices. Even alphabet pasta could be used!  A large Etch-A-Sketch would motivate spontaneity.

*Poetry alliances An alliance with a nonprofit organization such as the Girl Scouts at cookie time could afford wide distribution of poetry. Poems on child safety issues or family and community traditions would be appropriate. An alliance with Jaycees, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, or a Main Street Program could oversee distribution of local poets’ works at their events, which also promotes their community. At the state level poetry could be printed in tourism brochures and posters for distribution at state and county fairs, at chambers of commerce offices. It could also be posted on their websites.

*Poetry at sports venues I would love to see poems on the sports page of newspapers, introduced at half time, or even at the beginning of the 5th quarter at Badger games. Poets are referees. They throw flags. They draw attention to unnecessary roughness, illegal procedures, personal fouls. What a channel for poetry that would be!

Ideas generate ideas. It is my hope that these few may serve to motivate your thoughts and to encourage you to take action. We can make poetry a public treasure. I picked up the driftwood stick that was left at the beach by the anonymous poet. I now pass it on to you. The public needs your gifts.