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Spreading the Word
Poetry goes public on College Green.
By Nate Chinen
C OLLEGE GREEN IS NO stranger to spectacle during the first few days of spring. Undergraduates promenade along Locust Walk, limbs bared to the sunlight. Teams of Physical Plant workers tear up divots of grass. Squirrels dart in and out of the shrubbery. Clusters of pre-frosh work their way past the library, parents in tow.
This season, however, ushered in a truly odd addition to the landscape: an 8-by-20-foot wall of metal mesh, plastered with magnetic words. The Magnetic Poetry Wall was officially erected on Wednesday, April 1, in honor of National Poetry Month. It was cosponsored by the Laubach Literacy Foundation, the Mayor's Commission on Literacy, the Kelly Writers House, and Magnetic Poetry Inc., the company responsible for the popular series of refrigerator magnets.
"The Poetry Wall declares victory over the idea that poetry is best done alone, in a garret, indoors," cried Writers House faculty director Dr. Al Filreis during the opening ceremony. Filreis was also quick to illustrate the connection between Magnetic Poetry and the poetics of Penn alumnus William Carlos Williams, M'06, Hon'52 [See last month's cover story -- Ed.].
"The kind of poetry that Williams and his modernist colleagues invented leads us to a collaborative -- even civic -- poetry," Filreis said. The wall embodied this concept almost immediately; people of every age stopped to contribute poems and admire (or critique) the work of others. A number of the magnetic poems had multiple authors; poets often enlisted the help of passersby: "Has anyone seen a 'through'? I know I saw one ... "
Williams once characterized a poem as a "machine made out of words," a simple object, free of sentiment. "Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship," he wrote. "But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy."
The poems assembled on the wall ranged in tone from the ludicrous ("in the hot pink forest / flowers bounced slowly") to the lewd (usually involving the words "sausage," "luscious," or "drool"), but they all shared a common denominator: Each poet was faced with the same selection of words.
This limitation frequently produced unexpected results. The paucity of articles and pronouns made narrative an especially difficult enterprise, so most of the poems were fragmentary, imagistic. "I have gardens / inside of me," one 12-year-old wrote. Another poet penned this unlikely couplet: "Summer whispers lightly / of thousand petaled gowns." Magnetic poems are necessarily concise, and prompt us to consider each word as a thing -- a concrete, tangible object.
The logical conclusion is classic Williams: because the words already exist, the writer's role is that of curator rather than creator. The poems on the wall take shape because people have stopped to rearrange the position of the magnets. The resulting product belongs not to the poet but to the public -- to those who take the time to read it.
In other words, MagPo sets poetry up as a conspicuously democratic exercise, bringing the art (and the act) of poetry to the foreground. But at what cost? One student eyed the wall and delivered her wary appraisal that it "makes a mockery of poetry." In a recent issue of the AWP Chronicle, poet-critic Edward Lense addresses a perceived paradigm shift: poetry, which once enjoyed privileged status as a valuable form of art, has gradually evolved into a "form of communication alone, in which poems can be created, read (or performed) and forgotten almost immediately without anyone's feeling that their ephemeral nature constitutes artistic failure."
Lense presents the conservative argument that our current cultural climate -- as exemplified by talkshow bathos and the Web -- has led to the dissolution of poetry with a capital P. Magnetic Poetry, which arose out of an entrepreneurial impulse, is perhaps the ultimate thorn in the side of this "ivory-tower" approach.
While Lense and his colleagues bemoan the collapse of the poetic hierarchy, the public is still hesitant to proclaim victory. During the wall's first day up, one passerby eyed the wall with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion and asked: "How much do we have to pay?"
Though MagPo will probably not give rise to the next renaissance, it certainly provides an accessible outlet for a poetry-starved population.
Nate Chinen originally hails from Honolulu, Hawaii, and will graduate this month with a degree in Creative Writing. He works as assistant coordinator of the Kelly Writers House and as a freelance contributor for the Philadelphia City Paper and Billboard Online.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/11/98