Tuesday, October 27, 2020

"Nowhere to Nowhere," from Stark County Poems, appears on Ted Kooser's "American Life in Poetry"

Poem as it appeared in a newspaper in Portland, Indiana

 One of my Stark County Poems, "Nowhere to Nowhere," has been selected by the former US Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser (regionalist poet from Nebraska), for publication in his weekly column, "American Life in Poetry," which appears in hundreds of newspapers across the country and around the world.  It will also be archived in the Library of Congress.  The poem & Kooser's comments about it can be seen here: 


A few of the newspapers where "Nowhere to Nowhere" has appeared are:

~~~Journal Star (Lincoln, Nebraska),

~~~Commercial Review (Portland, Indiana),

~~~Transcript Bulletin (Tooele, Utah),

~~~Ames Tribune (Ames, Iowa),

~~~Shawangunk Journal (Shawangunk, New York),

~~~Bell Times Courier (O'Brien County, Iowa).

~~~Story City Herald (Story City, Iowa).

~~~Lake County News (Clear Lake, California)

Some thoughts on poetry in newspapers

Mr. Kooser's accomplishment of reintroducing poetry to local newspapers across the country, and around the world, cannot be praised enough.  Before his  "American Life in Poetry" project, poetry in newspapers had almost entirely died out.  But it used to be very different.  Nearly every newspaper in the country printed poetry in nearly every issue.  

My grandfather, who had only an 8th grade education, clipped poems from newspapers all his life.  He sent them to my grandmother when they were courting in 1916-17, and he could recite many of them from memory.  Poetry was very much a part of daily life all across America.  

Mr. Kooser's quest to return poetry to newspapers may seem a quixotic one to us today, but it has had a surprising degree of success so far, with his column appearing in 72 different countries around the globe, and reaching  over four million readers.

But that is only the first step.  Now it is up to the editors of regional newspapers to take the next step: soliciting and printing worthy works of their own local poets.  It is time for ordinary people to reclaim poetry from the ivory towers, poetry that is theirs by right.  They should not settle for always being spoon-fed their poetry by professors.   

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, readers did not feel they had to rely on professors or critics to tell them what the poems meant, or if they were worthy of being read.  Readers purchased the book (it was a national best-seller), took it home and read it in their own parlors and on their own porches.  They didn't consult with specialists; they made up their own minds about the poems.  They cut out the middle-men.  They thought for themselves.

I would like to mention one instance where a contemporary editor stubbornly revived the old tradition of publishing poetry in a local paper.  Jim Nowlan, the recent editor of the Stark County News in the Spoon River country of Stark County, Illinois, inherited his position from his father, who in turn had inherited it from his father, who was editor of the Stark County News in the late 19th Century.  The two elder Nowlans, following the practice of their time, consistently published poetry in their papers, and it was from these same newspapers that my grandfather clipped so many of the poems that he sent to my grandmother, and pasted in his scrapbook.  

The practice of printing poems in the News slowly died out after WWII, but several decades later when Jim Nowlan (third in the line of Nowlan editors-in-chief), oversaw the Stark County News into the 21st century, he printed several selections from my Stark County Poems.  Those few early appearances in my hometown newspaper meant more to me than all the later ones in literary reviews and journals combined.

The possibility of publishing one's poems in a local paper used to be available to poets everywhere in this country, and it should be again.  Homegrown poets should have local outlets for their poems: local papers that are read by  family, friends, neighbors, and the surrounding community.  

Poets outside the university system, who have not followed the prescribed route of graduating from a writing program---  but who may possess intrinsic talents worthy of encouragement---  cannot hope to compete with all the well-credentialed and well-connected university poets who dominate literary reviews and journals today.  Such publications may claim complete impartiality when assessing their heaps of submissions, but 99% of the time the poets they publish are just more students and professors.  Moreover, these journals and reviews have minimal ties to their communities, and no regional loyalties to speak of.  The literature they tend to foster-- products of claustrophobic workshops-- are more like root-bound houseplants, insular and internalized, than hardy native trees wrought by the elements into gnarled idiosyncratic forms. A nation's literature should grow up naturally from its soil, or its urban neighborhoods; it should slowly emerge from the local terrain like native hickory or oak.  

Literature should not be imposed upon us from the top down by specialists, by critics and professors.  Such specialists have a necessary and valued place, to be sure, but their appropriate function is to analyze and assess, not to prescribe and shape.  Nearly all of America's very greatest writers and poets prior to WWII were self-taught.  Today, by comparison, it seems, you cannot hang out your shingle as a poet without an officially approved license and union card.

Newspapers once provided a platform in this country for up-and-coming, self-taught poets.  William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allan Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier, Walt Whitman, Phillis Wheatley, Ambrose Bierce, Emily Dickinson, E.A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Gwendolyn Brooks (and who knows how many other self-taught American poets), all began their poetic careers by publishing in local newspapers.

Newspapers could provide such a platform again. It's not too late.  It's simply a matter of individual editors setting aside a few column inches in their back pages where a poem could be tucked in every so often.  It would be a small but significant way for them to foster the culture of their communities and their country.

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