American Life in Poetry

One of the biggest obstacles facing the dissemination of poetry in our culture is the absence of it in the mainstream media. In the early twentieth century, contemporary poetry was published and reviewed every week in the majority of newspapers and general-interest magazines in America. In the fifties, mainstream publications began curtailing this practice and today only highbrow journals like the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker still publish new poetry. Former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser began addressing this problem during his tenure in 2004-2006. He started the American Life in Poetry project, which is a free weekly column for newspapers and online journals featuring a poem by a contemporary American poet and a forward to the poem by Ted Kooser.

From the website:

Kooser observed that “Poetry has remained a perennial expression of our emotional, spiritual and intellectual lives, as witnessed by the tens of thousands of poems written about the tragedy of September 11 that circulated on the Internet. Now I’m hoping to convince editors that there could be a small place in their papers for poetry, that it could add a spot of value in the eyes of readers. Best of all, it won’t cost a penny.”

American Life in Poetry is supported by The Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress. You can sign up to receive the column each week in your email. I did, and this is what I got this week:

American Life in Poetry: Column 140

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here's a holiday poem by Steven Schneider that I like very much for its light
spirit and evocative sensory detail. Isn't this a party to which you'd like to
be invited?

Chanukah Lights Tonight

Our annual prairie Chanukah party--
latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes.
Friends arrive from nearby towns
and dance the twist to "Chanukah Lights Tonight,"
spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit.

The candles flicker in the window.
Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.
If you squint,
the neighbors' Christmas lights
look like the Omaha skyline.

The smell of oil is in the air.
We drift off to childhood
where we spent our gelt
on baseball cards and matinees,
cream sodas and potato knishes.

No delis in our neighborhood,
only the wind howling over the crushed corn stalks.
Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out,
waiting for the Messiah to knock,
wanting to know if he can join the party.
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3 responses to “American Life in Poetry

  1. From what I recall of my History of the News class with Professor Serrin, newspapers like The New York Times used to print a poetry column at least once a week. While people in the class seemed to look down upon this, I thought it brought a nice balance.
    It’s a shame that there isn’t more poetry in the mainstream media.

  2. This is a wonderful poem! I’m happy for you that you decided to change your investigative topic towards the beginning of this course. Looks like it worked out in your favor to cover a subject you can be passionate about.

  3. Gretchen Worsley

    Mmm…cherry blintzes. I don’t think a poem has ever made me salivate before. Impressive.

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