• Finding the poet in each of us
    January 04,2013

    The Muse of poetry is one that’s not always accessible to everyone. It’s a challenge for good poets to be able to use the right words to convey the right message in the right style or format.

    The complexity of it, in fact, turns off many students and fellow writers who want to be able to appreciate a work and find its subtle meaning.

    Vermont has its fair share of poets (good and bad), and an even greater number of poetry followers. (Central Vermont alone has so many that Montpelier can successfully hold a month’s worth of events aimed at poetry — PoemCity — and still have resources to spare for other months of the year.)

    Taking note of that interest, the Vermont Humanities Council is inviting communities statewide to be exposed to a host of poetry styles as told through a modern master, Billy Collins.

    For the 10th anniversary season of its popular Vermont Reads program, the council recently chose a poetry anthology, “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry,” as its 2013 book. The poems in the anthology were selected by Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate.

    Vermont Reads, which is described as “a statewide, one-book community reading program,” includes book discussions, read-a-thons, staged dramatic readings, panel discussions, art projects and exhibits, community potlucks, and writing contests. Vermonters can also participate in many poetry-related events around Vermont during the year, including National Poetry Month; PoemCity in the capital; and book festivals featuring poets in Burlington, Brattleboro and Woodstock; or by attending other VHC programs.

    Arguably, Collins has elevated poetry to a new standing in America. He is widely praised, copied and sought after. His collections (there are 13) are best-sellers. His approach is simple: Take everyday objects, concepts and occurrences, and give them a fresh twist. His work is often filled with humor, irony and head-shaking observations about how we live and interact.

    This anthology, “Poetry 180,” also is designed to make poetry available to everyone. (It does include a few New England-based poets.)

    According to a VHC news release, “Collins created ‘Poetry 180,’ a poem-a-day anthology, to make poetry less daunting. This is an assembly of ‘clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically “get” on first hearing — poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate.’ The book offers engaging, enjoyable poems for students and adults of all ages.”

    It was Collins’ goal as poet laureate, and remains his mission today.

    “The poetry in this collection is drawn from a wide range of poets and is well-written, contemporary and accessible,” said Mark Fitzsimmons, VHC’s Vermont Reads director. “It is selected to act as an open door for students and indeed all readers to enter into the world of poetry and to begin to discover its power and beauty.”

    The title, “Poetry 180,” comes from the fact there are about 180 days in the school year, so schools might choose to focus on one poem each day. The book’s subtitle, “A Turning Back to Poetry,” is a play on words, suggesting that our society should make a 180-degree turn, back to a time when poetry played a greater role in the lives of Americans.

    “Collins is one of America’s favorite poets, and his sensibilities are evident in this collection,” said Fitzsimmons in the VHC statement. “The poems he selects are both humorous and serious, they are often grounded in the everyday details of life, but they ascend from there to profound observation, engaging both the head and the heart.”

    The council is so eager to spotlight Collins, his work and the awareness he has brought to making poetry understandable and educational, its staff is working to bring Collins to Vermont as part of the program.

    That would be exciting and a validation of the important work the council is doing for all Vermonters.

    The deadline for communities to apply for Vermont Reads is May 15. Communities will receive up to 75 books, based on the strength of their application, as well as multiple resource and publicity materials. So far, about 25 communities have signed up. To apply, visit www.vermonthumanities.org or call 262-2626, ext. 306.

    Previous Vermont Reads picks have included “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Day of the Pelican” by Barre’s Katherine Paterson, “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka and “Counting on Grace” by Elizabeth Winthrop.

    According to the humanities council, “Communities around the state will have the opportunity to bring people together to read, discuss and build activities around the book. Vermont Reads promotes community-building, open dialogue, intergenerational exchange, a focus on the humanities, and literacy.”

    Who could ask for a better way to find the poet in each of us?

    Steven Pappas is editor of The Times Argus.

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