BY DAVID AUSTERN
For the Daily
Published November 5, 2002
Founded in 1910, the Poetry Society of America is the country's oldest national poetry organization. Its mission is to develop initiatives that incorporate poetry into everyday life. Of these, the Poetry in Motion program has been most successful. Influenced by the London-based Poems on the Underground, it showcases poems on billboards, in subway cars and on buses in order to expose the public to poetry. The poems of the project reach over 10 million people daily, in cities spanning the North American continent. 120 of the poems are included in the anthology "Poetry in Motion from Coast to Coast." The poems were selected by editors Elise Paschen and Brett Fletcher Lauer.
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Structurally, the book embodies the spirit of the Poetry in Motion programs. It recognizes local poets and their respective poetic contingencies. By offering examples of poetry from disparate geographical regions, it truly earns the title "Coast to Coast." Furthermore, the book deserves praise for its populist approach to poetry. It spans centuries; appearing in the anthology are Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens and William Blake, but also contemporary poets such as Li-Young Lee, Robert Hass and the current United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins. The anthology bridges stylistic gaps, showcasing free verse as well as rhyme. Also, poets write in a variety of languages; some of the poems appear in translation. By refusing to limit its definition of poetry, "Poetry in Motion from Coast to Coast" offers something to any potential reader.
Per the manifesto of the Poetry Society, the primary target of this anthology is the ordinary individual. Many people consider poetry oblique and academic and thus feel uneasy with it. To an extent this is a justifiable claim; the poetry we study is often difficult to interpret. As a result, this anthology includes poems that are accessible to a majority of readers. An excellent example is William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say," one of the most famous poems of the Imagist movement. The poem's notoriety largely stems from its employment of colloquial language and conversational structure. "I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox / and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast / Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold." The mock-apologetic tone of the speaker combined with the poem's carefree attitude makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Contributing to the anthology's readability is its length; the majority of poems included are short, like Williams'. Others are excerpts from longer poems - an innovative tactic on the part of the editors. Presumably, the decision arose out of necessity; a billboard or subway car placard only has so much room to display a poem. However, it also fosters an ideal environment for inducting unfamiliar readers into a love of poetry. By offering glimpses, the anthology makes for both a quick read and an excellent introduction to skeptics. And it is the hope of the Poetry Society that these skeptics will soon turn into avid readers. The concision of the poetry increases the re-readability of the book. It allows readers to return to their favorite poem and enjoy it a second, third or hopefully 10th time. In time, the poems may be memorized and recited unexpectedly.
That is why, for readers, the anthology is like a gift - it permits them to rekindle the joy experienced during their first encounter. Lauer, Director of the Poetry in Motion project, commented, "One of the great things about the book is that it allows the reader to take the poems home with them. When they re-read the poems they relive that initial moment, but now they have it forever." The poem "Avalanche" by Quincy Troupe offers an artistic rendition of Lauer's point. "This poem waits for you to crossover." He is precisely right, the poetry awaits us all; it awaits us in the classroom, in bookstores, and now even transit systems, thanks to the Poetry Society of America. And as Troupe says, once we "crossover" to an appreciation of poetry, there is no turning back.