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It Was Poetry in Motion at Continent's Biggest Such Event

Literature: Thousands celebrate poets and poems at the sixth annual Geraldine R. Dodge festival. Walt Whitman would have been proud.

September 26, 1996|CAROL MUSKE DUKES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder . . .

A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die . . .

My own songs awaked from that hour.

Walt Whitman, the great 19th century American poet, could have shouted these lines of his while swinging from a church steeple and he'd have blended right in with the crowd of thousands attending the sixth Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival last weekend in Waterloo, N.J.

Every person in attendance was a poet or longed to be one, a teacher, a student or a passionate reader of poetry. There were even collectors of poetry baseball cards (I'll trade you an Auden for a Plath!) milling about. Bards and bard wannabes of all ages and persuasions poured in from across the country--ninth-graders to 90-year-olds.

The festival--sponsored by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, whose manifesto is "acknowledging education in the arts"--is North America's largest poetry festival. This year more than 10,000 people participated: high school students, some of whom have been competing for months for the opportunity to attend, and teachers and others from all over the U.S. who pay modest fees to work with and listen to world-class poets in workshops, readings and one-on-one conversations.

It resembles nothing so much as an immense carnival of poetry, with pizza, veggie subs, poetry comic books and festival T-shirts for sale on the grounds. (This year's T-shirt was printed with the neon-bright words for "poetry" in several languages. Did you know that barddoniaeth is "poetry" in Welsh?) Strolling bands play panpipes, guitars and ocarinas.

The festival takes place in the restored revolutionary village of Waterloo. Some of the panel sessions are actually held in the old sawmill, gristmill or weaving barn (complete with spinning wheels). Resident farm animals turn into literary critics, in particular a gaggle of very loud and opinionated geese.

Crowds also gather under the peaks of large revival-style tents, one big enough to hold more than 2,000 fans. People wander, arm in arm, by a flowing canal overhung with green willow wands and a tiny waterfall just beyond the gazebo.

I had the good fortune to be invited this year as a featured poet, along with three other poets from California: Robert Hass, the poet laureate of the U.S. (from Kensington); Brenda Hillman, also from Kensington; and Philip Levine from Fresno. Like delegates to a political convention, we joined the 17 other featured poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Yehuda Amichai (Israel's most popular poet), Jean Valentine from Ireland, Gwendolyn Brooks and Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa.

Beyond the names, what draws the crowds is the emphasis on the living, breathing nature of poetry. Poetry is alive. Poets recite their work under the trees--the poems of Langston Hughes and Federico Garcia Lorca and Anna Akhmatova are declaimed by grandmothers and kids with purple hair and pierced tongues in the gazebo. Ginsberg teaches meditation and plays his harmonium, chanting off-key political mantras ("Don't smoke! Don't smoke! You'll choke! You'll choke!") in the main tent. Joy Harjo accompanies herself by playing tenor sax between reading her poems. The white clapboard steepled church hosts an impromptu haiku session.

Poetry, therefore, is not available only to those who write in seclusion. Here, poetry is democratic, egalitarian; it flows and rises like air.

Nevertheless, the interest here is not so much in amateur performance poetry or in actors and diarists "ego-dumping" into microphones. What these students and teachers come to hear is the transformative miracle of pure poetic language. For example, Robert Creeley, rearing way back and drawing out his classic "I Know a Man":

--John, I

sd, which was not his

name, the darkness sur-

rounds us, what

can we do against

it, or else, shall we &

why not, buy a goddam big car,

drive, he sd, for

christ's sake, look

out where yr going

Or Levine's "They Feed They Lion":

Out of the gray hills

Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,

West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,

Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,

Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch

They Lion grow.

Or Thylias Moss:

The miracle was not birth but that I lived despite my crimes. I treated God badly also; he is another parent watching his kids through a window, eager to be proud of his creation, looking for signs of spring.

Or Li Young-Lee:

I was cold once. So my father took off his blue sweater. He wrapped me in it and I never gave it back. It is the sweater he wore to America.

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