[This newspaper "feature" appeared while I was teaching English 88, Modern American Poetry, in the Spring of 1995. A TV News Story was aired to coincide with the publication of this story. (Quicktime .mov file, approx 9 MB).]

"Verse Makes a Comeback on Campuses"

Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, March 4, 1995

(pp. B1, B4)
It can be deep. Or dirt. But never
dull. Poetry is seeing a renaissance
on campus.

By Lily Eng, Inquirer Staff Writer

Most of the time, Penniman Library is just a musty little nook on the University of Pennsylvania campus, filled with dust-covered books on labor relations and shadows cast by gaudy art deco lights.

But on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Penniman turns into a trendy shrine to rhyme.

Crammed with 80 undergrads, the narrow hall echoes with talk of poets--of Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein. The students bicker over the merits of "A Dozen Cocktails--Please," a 1920s tour de force by Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, an eccentric who blended commercial phrases ("Yes--we have No bananas") with her own off-color social commentary.

Is it poetry? Or rubbish?

"If I wanted to listen to the ramblings of a madman," snipes a member of the anti-Baroness camp, "I could go wait outside Wawa's."

"It's nice to say the world is nice and coherent," a Baroness sympathizer shoots back. "But it sometimes isn't."

And the beat goes on. At colleges across the country, a poetry revival is afoot. The generation weaned on "Coke Is It" and "Just Do It" is swaying to sonnets, marching to epics, meditating on haiku and getting down with the avantgardes. And English professors, who for years had to force verse down students' throats like a foul-tasting pill, are turning away Byron wanna-bes at the door.

In their newfound appetite for what they call "the word," students are "omnivores," said Penn Professor Al Filreis. His modern poetry course at Penniman had a waiting list of 25 at the start of the semester. Since 1975, he said, enrollment in poetry classes at the school has soared 60 percent.

At Temple University, all poetry courses are booked; at Ursinus, poetry-writing classes have waiting lists. At Earlham College in Indiana, twice as many students take poetry as did five years ago. And at the University of Cincinnati, professors have lifted the cap.

Outside class, young bards are unabashed about their passion.

At the Bryn Mawr Campus Center, students attend "bad poetry nights," when dressed in black and sipping Joes--they read. Alas, they cannot smoke.

A step beyond is the "slam," in which writers strut their own words--or steal others'--in front of campus-coffeehouse open mikes. The poetically challenged throw in visual effects and bad acting, not to mention $5 in a hat. Winner takes all. Maynard G. Krebs would be rich.

When they're not slamming, they're submitting their work to 'Zines, alternative publications for twenty-somethings.

It's been a long, dry spell for the word. The last highly publicized age of poetry on campus was the late 1950s and early '60s when the alienated and rebellious Beat Generation was in vogue.

The Vietnam War inspired another spurt of interest, according to John Wheatcroft, the director of the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg. But that, too, ebbed.

For years afterward, rhyme, meter and free verse languished while students stuck with prose. Only English majors ventured into assonance, free verse and tones. And even they came grudgingly.

Yes, poetry was pretty and had a nice beat. But you couldn't dance to it.

Students thought poetry was "T.S. Eliot ivory tower territory," said poet and Penn Professor Bob Perelman. It was "lofty and not for the unwashed masses."

If students thought that reading poetry was a bore, writing it was agony. A decade ago, when Earlham English Professor Gordon Thompson would ask students to compose their own verse, he'd usually wind up with poetry that read more like diary confessions. They thought poetry had to plumb the soul. Wrong.

"They thought they had to tell me their innermost personal thoughts," Thompson recalled. "They told me stuff I didn't want to hear about. It was embarrassing."

Then along came a new generation of lecturers - poets, mostly - who didn't inflict their own take on their students but encouraged them to arrive at their own interpretations. New writing programs and workshops came to life, to teach the art.

At Penn, Perelman has challenged standard ideas of what is poetic.

"we live in a culture where everything is so packaged," said Perelman, who has written 10 books of verse. "Poetry offers much greater range Of emotion, more interesting ways Of thinking. Students are writing and breaking out of prefabricated chunks."

For this generation, anything goes.

Some like Robert Hass, or Adrienne Rich, or William Blake, or Robert Burns, or Emily Dickinson, and some don't.

Some want deep meaning; some want gloss.

Some prefer political correctness; some prefer dirt.

So what now is poetry's lure?

There's so much going on in so little space, said Carlos Decena, a Penn senior. "Four stanzas can make a whole revolution."

So can "You deserve a break today." But Shakespeare it ain't.

Young people are tired of cliches and slogans, said Marjorie Perloff, professor of English at Stanford University.

"The language out there is flat," Perloff said. "You get the same, endless slogans. Students get excited with somebody who can do something with language."

In poetry, the tiniest nuance. (a dash, a change in font, or a semicolon) can make a world of difference.

Poetry appeals to the young of the 1990s for the same reasons it appealed to the young of the 1890s: It's spiritual, emotional and rebellious, said Robert Faggen, professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"It's a way of exploring something, like human evil," Faggen said. "Poetry has an immediacy and intensity. You not only talk about the ideas of evil; but hear it tormenting the soul."

Or enlightening it. Wellesley senior Heather Urure, 21, meditates through poetry. A Rhodes scholar who likes Dante, Louise Keats, Milton and Christina Urure plans to attend Oxford University in the fall to study the subject.

Every Wednesday, she and other students read aloud the work. "I'm able to reflect an the world in an aesthetic way of looking at it literally," said "Poetry allows me to find meaning in ordinary things."

Even the meaning in Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and "Yes--we have No bananas."


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/inky-story.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:26:31 EDT