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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the September 11,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From Dark Places, a Gathering of Poets

Defining "poetry" is about as hard as


"love" or "patriotism." Not only do we all have


ideas of what constitutes poetry, but, partly depending on how we

view it, we may also turn to it at different times in our lives.

That was all true enough — until the past year, when the events

of September 11, 2001, changed the status of poetry, causing it to

become the medium of choice for exploring, explaining, grieving. The

spontaneous writing and sharing of poetry after the terrorist attacks

has generated collections and anthologies and motivated poets,


and listeners.

Soon after September 11, visual artist Elizabeth Murray wrote in


to Belief in Art," published in the New York Times, that


were the only way all these feelings that were surfacing could be

adequately expressed." A few months later, Mary Karr reaffirmed,

also in the Times, "the notion that lyric poetry dispenses more

relief — if not actual salvation — during catastrophic times

than perhaps any art form."

How could the timing possibly be more propitious for the Geraldine

R. Dodge ninth biennial poetry festival — the largest poetry event

in North America — that takes place Thursday through Sunday,


19 to 22. After looking back for a year, people may be ready to look

ahead by now.

James Haba, the festival’s director since its debut in 1986, says

much of this year’s event, coming a week after the first anniversary

of September 11, "focuses on the future, which of course also

deals with the past." With a community orientation that is more

pronounced than at other times, this Dodge festival will allow


to "dream — not as in fantasy, but in the old visionary way

— about the future," he says.

And Robert Pinsky, one of five American poets laureate scheduled to

participate in the festival, recently mused by phone from Truro,


about how in the year since September 11, we have been glutted,


— first by the scale of the event, then by the scale of the



Much information came to us through the mass media, with a volume

and effect that were comparably massive. "TV has tremendous


and reach, and still photography captured forever the largest


the huge planes," he said. But when we crave something on a


level, there is poetry.

Poetry, Pinsky says, is "an ancient and fundamental technology

on the individual, human scale." The medium of the poem is


one person’s body, one person’s breath." As Haba puts it,


is one of the core, ancient connections to our innermost reality."

And Karr also wrote that poetry is about "instantaneous connection

— one person groping from a dark place to meet with another in

an instant that strikes fire."

For four days later this month, from Thursday through

Sunday, September 19 to 22, some 15,000 people of all ages and


will converge at historic Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey,

to celebrate poetry at the Dodge biennial festival. Through their

voices, which are its medium, poetry will be experienced as the living

art it is — the center of our imaginative and emotional lives.

The five most recent U.S. poets laureate — Billy Collins


Rita Dove (1993-95); Robert Hass ((1995-97); Stanley Kunitz (2000-01),

and Robert Pinsky (1997-2000) — are expected to participate. And

they are far from the end of illustrious versifiers to be featured.

Besides two New Jersey poets laureate, Gerald Stern (2000-02) and

Amiri Baraka (current, 2002-04), the honor roll includes an


cast of prize-winning poets, with Adam Zagajewski listed last but

hardly least. His 21-line poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated


appeared on a single, uncluttered page in the New Yorker of September

24, 2001, becoming the poetic equivalent of the shot heard round the


Considered the heart of the festival and serving as a continuous


that poetry is an oral/aural art, dependent on audience as well as

poet or reader, poetry readings are scheduled day and night in


buildings, under tents, and outdoors. Other activities include panel

discussions, conversations on craft, musical performances, and


"It’s largely from other poets that one begins to be a poet,"

Stanley Kunitz has said. "You’re not going to become one through

learning prosody, but through the energizing force of the word. I

think every poet begins by simply being enchanted by the sound of


Although the festival is open to the public every day, the first two

days are designed especially for high school students and teachers.

Some 4,000 students will attend on Thursday; on Friday the festival

expects to host 2,000 teachers at all levels from across the country.

In one of numerous occasions for open reading, winners of the state’s

high school poetry contest read from the main stage on Thursday


In "Poets on Poetry" sessions those two mornings, featured

poets will talk about their relationship to poetry and read their

own and others’ poems. Afternoon and weekend discussion programs will

explore the relationship between poetry and history, the spirit, and

the earth, among other topics. Besides presentations by guest poets

on the life of the poet and on the craft itself, occasions for


conversations among poetry lovers will abound.

Waterloo Village, once an important stop on the Morris

Canal, is a nationally registered historic site in Allamuchy Mountain

State Park. Today a restored symbol of the 19th century, it was known

for its superior iron during the 18th and 19th centuries. While a

few poetry festival events take place in Village buildings such as

a church, a gristmill, and a rustic museum, most are held in tents

of various sizes, some with sound stages. Readings by featured poets

and other major evens take place in the concert tent, which seats

over 2,000.

Late Saturday afternoon, September 21, an open forum welcomes


to read "Poems that Speak to 9/11/01," and that entire evening

will be devoted to the topic "Imagining a Future: An Evening of

Readings, Reflections, and Music." A community experience, it

departs from the usual practice of focusing on individual


Haba says.

On the subject of reading poetry aloud — invariably the


way to read it — poetry is a vocal art, but not necessarily a

performing art, Pinsky had observed. "To read a poem, it takes

a kindred spirit, not a performer," he said, adding that we live

in a culture that emphasizes performance, so when people move into

the art of poetry, their first step understandably might be the poetry

slam. "Poetry will always be small as a branch of show biz,"

he added.

And Haba points out that "verbal language is only a part of what

poetry is." Whatever medium we’re working in — music,


or dance, for instance — "when all the elements become


right, at a moment of surpassing coherence; when everything comes

together almost more than we think possible, we say it is `poetry’;

we give it the accolade of `poetic’."

Usually a reference to learning a foreign language, the phrase


immersion" might also apply to the Dodge Poetry Festival: the

cup that runneth over with all things poetry — much to the delight

of everyone involved.

— Pat Summers

Dodge Poetry Festival 2002, Waterloo Village, Stanhope,

201-507-8900. Over 100 poets gather for the ninth biennial festival,

the largest poetry event in North America. Website:

Daily admission $18 and $25. Four-day pass $60; weekend pass, $35.

Tickets at Ticketmaster. Thursday through Sunday, September 19

to 22.

See also www.favorite, an outgrowth of the project

begun by Robert Pinsky in 1997.

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