Looking back at April, National Poetry Month, this thought pops into my head. Does poetry matter?
Well, write poetry, for God's sake, it's the only thing that matters. — e. e. cummings
If you would have asked my 18-year-old self, I would have assured you that poetry didn't matter in my life, nor in the life of anyone I knew. As poet laureate of the city of Madison since 2016, it is hard to believe that I could have entertained a thought like that — but my, things have changed over a couple of decades.
How did my beliefs about poetry change in such a short time? One of the main reasons is that poets have figured out how to take poetry off the written page and make it come alive. Spoken word poetry has entered new venues like HBO's "Def Poetry Jam," and poets have found new ways to spread verse into storytelling and lyrics.
Through spoken word poetry, poets have returned to using their voices as an instrument for social change and activism. Speaking out against injustice and advocating for social change have elevated the spoken word movement to new heights. If you follow the various paths of University of Wisconsin First Wave Program graduates — as teachers, social workers, attorneys and all forms of artists — these hundreds of students have made a difference in Madison, the state, and across the country. (The First Wave Spoken Word and Hip Hop Arts Learning Community is a cutting-edge multicultural artistic program for incoming UW-Madison students. Bringing together young artists and leaders from across the U.S and beyond, it offers students the opportunity to live, study and create together in a close-knit, dynamic campus community.)
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility. — William Wordsworth
The responsibilities of the city of Madison poet laureate during his or her term are not well understood because there are few formal requirements. Essentially, they are to give a reading or presentation to inaugurate their term, select a poet and introduce him or her at quarterly City Council readings, help organize the Madison Metro Bus Lines poetry project and work with the city of Madison Arts Commission to select pieces for Poet in the Sidewalk. Outside of these, Madison's poets laureate are largely free to shape the position based on their inclinations. Some assume a highly visible role as a regional advocate for poetry, while others eschew the spotlight and focus on their writing.
In my role as Madison's poet laureate since 2016 (I was reappointed to a second two-year term in January), I lead the Poet Laureate Program's efforts to expand the appreciation of poetry in our city.
Madison Metro's Bus Lines Poetry program has enhanced the outside of buses in Madison for the past six years. The program highlights writing from Madison poets (ages 6 to 70) while focusing on a theme. This year’s theme is “home.” What is that special thing about Madison that makes you call it “home"? The poet laureate and Madison Metro Bus then partner with Edgewood College students, who transform these words into powerful images, and both the poem and art grace the side panels and rear of the exterior of Metro buses, as well as the Metro Ride Guide and Metro Transfer Card.
A significant change this year is that poems can be submitted in Spanish. In the fall you will see a new set of Bus Lines Poetry posters on Metro buses.
In addition, the Poetry on the Sidewalk effort continues. It is a pleasant surprise to see a poem while walking down the street. Poems have been imprinted on sidewalks on Jennifer and Spaight streets on the east side for the past few years. The reconstruction of Monroe Street provides another opportunity. Monroe Street sidewalk poetry is slated to feature a half-dozen poems after road construction finishes next year.
Here is a poem I wrote for consideration in the poetry sidewalk series:
Monroe Street 900 years ago
walking towards the direction
of Lake Wingra,
it was a sea of reeds and wild rice
one had to bypass several effigy mounds
that not only celebrated death, but life
a reminder that history never gets lost
as often as it seems
we try to bury it with progress.
The Poet Laureate Program has also given me the opportunity to showcase amazing local writers and provide a venue to share their words via the Poetry in the City Council program, which happens quarterly at the start of regular City Council meetings. Several City Council members have commented that these reflective few minutes help set the “tone” for the rest of the council proceedings.
Poetry does matter. As I get closer to retirement age, I see how poetry can bring the community together, provide a chance for reflection and help us understand our differences a little easier. Poets have many times used their poetry to advance social justice and make the narrative easy for others to understand.
I think Robert Frost said it the best:
There are three things, after all, that a poem must reach: the eye, the ear, and what we may call the heart or the mind. It is most important of all to reach the heart of the reader. — Robert Frost
Oscar Mireles is Madison's poet laureate and executive director of Omega School.
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