Beyond

The Printer’s Devil: I’m Obsessed With Poetry … Even Though Poetry Makes Nothing Happen 

The Printer’s Devil explained. The symbol of the printer’s devil reflects my love for the printed word. A printer’s devil in history was thought to be a pesky demon that, when the printer was not watching, would iuvert letters, mizspell a word or perhaps remove an entire word or even a complete line. This was in the era when type was set one character at a time. In more recent eras, the printer’s devil was an apprentice who ran errands and did menial tasks around the print shop. That was me in high school, when I worked at my dad’s print shop in the West Loop. 

The Printer’s Devil will be a monthly column featuring the musings of our editor and publisher, Nancy Bishop.

Poetry has always been part of my life, from Mother Goose rhymes to poetry and poetry-writing classes in high school and college. Mostly it was just on the sidelines of my life, except for a few brief flurries of serious writing. But recently I’ve decided that I need to join or jump-start the poetry renaissance.

You may not think a poetry renaissance is necessary in Chicago. After all, Adam Morgan writes that Chicago may be the poetry capital of America, partly because of the founding of Poetry Magazine here in 1912. He also credits other publications, venues and poets for Chicago’s dynamic poetry scene.

The poetry slam got its start in Chicago in 1984, and the Louder Than a Bomb poetry competition was founded here by Kevin Coval, Anna West and Young Chicago Authors. LTAB competitions are now held in cities across the U.S. (We recently wrote about a night of Coval’s readings from his latest book of poetry, A People’s History of Chicago, at the Driehaus Museum.)

The national Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine, is headquartered here and we also have the Poetry Center of Chicago.

Most any night of the week you can find a live poetry reading somewhere in Chicago.

Poetry lives a full and vibrant life in Chicago.

Nationally, the Academy of American Poets offers you a Poem a Day by email. Some of them are quite good. Many are by contemporary poets and some by traditional poets (i.e. dead white people). The Poetry Foundation has an app for your smartphone that enables you to search and read a favorite poet  or “spin” and choose poems that match a mood or situation, like “Nostalgia and Family” or “Frustration and Love.”

The renaissance in poetry isn’t new but it’s exciting. It may have started with the genesis of poetry slams 30-some years ago but hip-hop’s expansion to a wider audience through the work of Chicago artists like Common and Chance the Rapper helped its revival.

I was not much of a hip-hop fan until a few years ago, when I saw the megamusical Hamilton for the first time. It opened my eyes to the wonder of hip-hop in storytelling. Hip-hop artists can smash together a profusion of words—like Dylan and early Springsteen—and make their stories rich and compelling.

My own love for poetry began in college. We read Shakespearean sonnets in my Shakespeare summer school class at UIC (sitting on the grass outside our own “Harvard on the Rocks” at Navy Pier). Listening to Professor Kogan read the sonnets aloud and reading them ourselves was a joy. Then later at Mizzou, I always found time away from my journalism courses for poetry. My favorites were:

  • A modern lit course in which I learned to love T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden.
  • A marvelous poetry writing seminar with the great poet, John Neihardt. I still have my folder of poems, written on a typewriter and edited by hand, from that class. Some of them are not bad; some are embarrassing.

Image courtesy John Neihardt State Historical Site.

As a J-School reporter, I interviewed Professor Neihardt at his farm home and wrote a feature on him for the Columbia Missourian, the J-School’s daily newspaper.

I’ve continued to read poetry, listen to it at every chance, and occasionally write it over the years. My poetry library includes works by my favorite poets—Auden, Eliot and W.B. Yeats, Chicago’s own Stuart Dybek, Kevin Coval and Carl Sandburg, plus Ron Padgett, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and Federico Garcia Lorca. And more poets and a dozen or more anthologies

The 2016 film, Paterson, was thrilling because it was about a busdriver poet. As I said in my review, “It’s a beautiful film about nothing much.” It’s the story of a busdriver named Paterson who drives a bus around Paterson, NJ, and writes poetry every day. He also reads William Carlos Williams, a Paterson native.

As I said, my passion for poetry makes me want to jump-start the poetry renaissance. I guess I want everyone to appreciate poetry. So I ask, why do so many people say they don’t like poetry?

I belong to a book group that meets every month or two to read and discuss a notable book of fiction or nonfiction. It’s a group of a dozen or more highly literate and well-read people. One night I suggested we read the Kevin Coval book I mentioned above and I got groans. “I could see reading a few poems,” one person said, “but a whole book?”

My attempt to sell poetry that way didn’t work but the host for the next meeting asked me to spend a few minutes talking about poetry and reading a few poems. So I did that and I think most people enjoyed it. But several insisted they still hated poetry. Why, I wondered?

Matthew Zapruder tries to answer that question in his 2017 book, Why Poetry? It’s “an impassioned call for a return to reading poetry and an incisive argument for its accessibility to all readers.” Zapruder thinks the aversion to poetry results from the way it is taught in most schools—as something to analyze, parse and understand. Really, he says, the way to read poetry is just to read the words of the poem and forget everything we were taught in school about it. Just read the words.

Plaque on house where Auden lived in Brooklyn Heights, NY. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

He tells about how he was assigned to read a poet in high school and he picked W.H. Auden because the name was listed first. He knew nothing about Auden, whether the name indicated a he or she. But he still remembers the first lines he read, from “Musee des Beaux Arts.”

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;

Something just clicked, he says. He didn’t quite understand all of it but he knew it said something important about being human.

Auden is perhaps my favorite poet of all; I have half a dozen books of his work. In his great poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” he writes, “For poetry makes nothing happen: It survives in the valley of its saying … / It survives / A way of happening, a mouth.”

2 replies »

  1. Point well taken. My personal list is mostly based on the poets I first read in the 1950s and ’60s. I’d be pleased for you to add to my list. Who are your favorite poets?

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