By Charis-Carlson, Jeff
The Masthead , Vol. 60, No. 4
About two-and-one-half years ago I attempted to help revive the languishing practice of newspaper poetry by establishing a regular Poetic License feature in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
As home to the University of Iowa's famous Writers' Workshop, Iowa City is an ideal location for such a feature. The city already sponsors an annual Poetry in Public project in which city staff selects local poems to post on placards on city buses, kiosks, and buildings. And I've been able to work regularly with Mike Chasar, a University of Iowa scholar of poetry and popular culture, and have printed more than fifty of his poems as well as several guest columns on poetry in the news.
Chasar's involvement has inspired a number of other local poets and would-be poets to break all the rules of poetry they learned in school and to begin submitting their own attempts at political, topical, timely verse.
Few of these poems are written for the ages, but many provide needed commentary on the local and national news of the day. And featuring topical poems regularly in the paper also has opened the possibility for printing longer, more thoughtful poetic responses to local tragedies and other sensitive news stories.
Newspaper poetry history
Until about fifty years ago--when universities began instituting writers' workshops--poetry was a standard feature in newspapers. But most editors decided to ban poetry altogether for any combination of the following reasons:
Too much time: Poets were too hard to work with because they didn't like their word choice being changed to fit AP style. Plus the poetic lines didn't always fit within one column.
Too hard to read: Poetry required such specialized training and such an educated audience that it no longer could appeal to a newspaper's general readership.
Too hickish: As editors were taught in school that they should dislike or disdain any poetry that they could actually understand, locally produced poetry became identified with small community weeklies and newsletters.
Too dangerous: A goal of good newspaper writing is to eliminate ambiguity and unintended interpretations. Yet poetry often relies upon linguistic shifts and multiple meanings to get its point across. When printing poetry, editors risk losing control of how people read and how people understand what appears on the page.
In recent years, poetry in newspapers has been somewhat boosted by former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry project (www.americanlifeinpoetry.org). But as much as Kooser's project helps carve out a space for poetry in newspapers, it simply takes poems that have been vetted by the literary establishment and allows them to be boxed and showcased on pages throughout the nation.
Good bad poetry
With Poetic License, I've been more interested in encouraging local readers to comment poetically and interactively on contemporary events. I've sought out poets and poems that haven't been vetted by the literary establishment, and I've proudly printed some poems that, in fact, should make aestheticians cringe.
I'm looking for what Mike Chasar and I call "good bad poetry"--borrowing George Orwell's definition of "good bad fiction" These are poems that revel in their own doggerel status, that hurl ham-fisted rhymes to make a point and that often embrace a pointed political position. They are poems more on par with the deadline poetry of Calvin Trillin in The Nation or William H. von Dreele in the National Review--or even the limericks on NPR's news quiz, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"--than anything offered in Kooser's weekly column.
We want poets who are creative and shameless enough to rhyme "Des Moines" with "sirloin" as one poet did when lambasting how much money the university pays its football coach in "Lines on the Occasion of Kirk Ferentz's Salary Hike" We're looking for poets who can contrast a local Girls Gone Wild bus accident, presidential signing statements, and the Israeli/Hezbollah conflict by ending each stanza with the word "sticky," as Chasar himself pulled off in "Variations on a Line by Lance Armstrong"--a poem that tweaked the Iowa press corps for its starry-eyed coverage of Armstrong's first year riding in the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. …