Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The evolution of poetry January 15, 2013

EXCEPT FOR THE POETRY of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, the poetry I studied in my youth seemed mostly complicated and unapproachable.

I expect you may have felt the same about any poetry you read, studied and critiqued as part of a high school and/or college English class. You could not wait to get through the required course and put poetry behind you.

Today, though, poetry has become much more approachable, even understandable. Would you agree?

I write poetry. Seventeen of my poems have been published in places ranging from the pages of a newspaper, magazine and anthologies to billboards. Yes, billboards. Recently, the Roadside Poetry Project, which began in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, in 2008 and featured seasonally-changing poetry billboards, ended.

The last of four billboards featuring my Roadside Poetry spring poem.

The last of four billboards featuring my Roadside Poetry spring poem. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Venues like this expose poetry to the masses in an unassuming and everyday way. When a poem is limited to four lines, a maximum of 20 characters per line, every word, every letter, counts and thus the poem is penned with great care. Take my poem, winner in the spring 2011 Roadside Poetry competition:

Cold earth warmed
by the budding sun
sprouts the seeds
of vernal equinox.

Sidewalk poetry, which graces Minnesota sidewalks in St. Paul, Mankato, Northfield and St. Cloud, also holds similar word limitations and a certain everyday appeal. Those who long ago dismissed poetry for its complexity and arrogance may develop a renewed interest in verse upon reading sidewalk poetry. That would be my hope.

A poem by Mankato resident Yvonne Cariveau imprinted  in the sidewalk at Riverfront Park, Mankato, as part of the WordWalk project.

A poem by Mankato resident Yvonne Cariveau imprinted in the sidewalk at Riverfront Park, Mankato, as part of the WordWalk project. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I’ve viewed some of the sidewalk poems in Mankato (WordWalk) and Northfield (Sidewalk Poetry). While these poems may be limited in words, they certainly are not limited in depth. Sometimes less is more. Writing a short poem with word limitations can be more of a challenge than penning a lengthy poem. Ask any poet.

A poem by Patrick Ganey is stamped into the sidewalk near the Northfield Public Library. It reads: still winter thaw  tall pines bend, grey sky drops rain  even at midday  a train whistle sounds lonely

A poem by Patrick Ganey is stamped into the sidewalk near the Northfield Public Library. It reads: still winter thaw/ tall pines bend, grey sky drops/ rain even at midday/ a train whistle sounds lonely. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

This whole concept of stamping poems into concrete, putting poetry out there to the public, appeals to me as a truly creative way to bring verse to the people, to those who might not pick up a poetry book.

Even more creative is Motionpoems, a nonprofit poetry film initiative developed under the guidance of Twin Cities animator/producer Angella Kassube and St. Paul poet Todd Boss. The pair co-founded Motionpoems in 2009. The process “turns contemporary poems into (animated) short films.”

Among my favorite Motionpoems is an adaptation of Boss’ poem titled “The God of Our Farm Had Blades,” a poem about a windmill. While some would argue that visuals detract from the words and the reader’s interpretation of a poem, I would argue that visuals and listening to verse read aloud enhance the poetry experience.

Northern Community Radio, based in Grand Rapids and Bemidji, recently embraced poetry via “The Beat,” which each weekday features a poem by a poet with a Minnesota connection. How lovely is that to listen to a poem read on the air?

For those who still prefer the old-fashioned book-in-hand method of reading poetry, as I also enjoy, plenty of excellent collections exist out there, including Boss’ two books, Yellowrocket and Pitch.

Minnetonka poet Carol Allis also recently published a particularly understandable poetry collection appropriately titled Poems for Ordinary People. Her no-frills style of writing and the content of her verse allow readers to easily connect with her words.

Lake Region Review, volume two, with cover art by  Charles Beck

Lake Region Review, volume two, with cover art by Charles Beck

I can’t end this post without recommending two outstanding Minnesota-based collections of regional writing (including poetry) in the long-standing The Talking Stick published by The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc and Lake Region Review, in its second year of publication by the Lake Region Writers Network. Both feature a diversity of fine, fine regional writing. (And just to clarify, my work has been published in both.)

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN. Tell me how you experience, or don’t experience, poetry. Do you write, edit, listen to, read poetry?

What are your thoughts on creative poetry venues like billboards, sidewalks and film?

What are your thoughts on poetry in general?

Let’s talk poetry.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


31 Responses to “The evolution of poetry”

  1. I love the poems on billboards and on sidewalks. That is just too wonderful.

    I always liked poetry, but I could never get the hang of determining meter. That was a big stumbling block for me. I never understood why teachers wanted us to scan poems. Later on, when I was teaching college English, I taught a little T.S. Eliot to sophomores. We read “The Waste Land.” To say the students were overwhelmed is an understatement. So I told them not to worry about whether they understood every reference, etc. I read the poem aloud to them and told them they would understand the main point just from the sound of the words. I really think many of them did.

    Thank you for sharing your poetry with us. Your poem reminds me that spring will indeed come again.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You were wise to read poetry aloud to your college students and advise them not to worry about understanding everything. Interpretation can so vary based on personal experiences. Also, I totally agree that hearing a poem read aloud can lead to understanding. And I just realized that recently, decades after college. I’ve had the opportunity to read my poetry on several occasions during the past year and am finally relaxing enough to enjoy the experience. For someone who doesn’t particularly like getting up in front of an audience, practice, repetition and time helped, not that I’ll ever be totally at ease.

  2. Teri Kojetin Says:

    Since I live in Mpls I will have to go see the sidewalks. My dad lives in Northfield and I never even knew about them! I love poetry and always have. I write my own as well, more of a free style. Robert Frost is one of my favorites. My parents gave me The Golden Treasury of Poetry when I was 14 and The Poetry of Robert Frost when I was 17.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      The sidewalk poetry project in Northfield was started only a few years ago and I have not seen all of the poems. When I was last in downtown Northfield, the sidewalk near the historical sidewalk was partially blocked for installation of a poem. I really like the whole concept of sidewalk poetry and see it as an especially good fit for an arts-minded community like Northfield.

      Also, how wonderful that your parents gifted you with those collections of poetry.

      Thank you for stopping by.

  3. Oh, my gosh, I love this post. And I can tell you that I do all of those things – read, write, and edit poetry. I’m on the staff of Every Day Poets (http://www.everydaypoets.com) and we publish a short (less than 500 words) poem every single day of the year. We also have two anthologies in print so far (here’s a link: http://www.everydaypoets.com/print-books/). One of the wonderful things about being part of this team is that our poets are from all over the world, as is our staff. I’m based in Roseville, MN; my colleagues are in the US, UK, and Canada; our poets are from a broader selection of places. As long as they write in English, we’ll consider their previously unpublished and polished work.
    I think there has always been accessible poetry available to those who look for it, but what is taught in the canon has traditionally been difficult work. With billboard and sidewalk projects, people are not only reintroduced to poetry that they can easily engage with; they are also reminded that poetry is everywhere, in all the little details of our lives. And maybe, just maybe, if they let themselves, they can find the rhythm of their own poetry just waiting to be let loose.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Kathleen, I must admit that I’ve been waiting for your comment, knowing your connection with Every Day Poets. Thank you for telling us about this online, and in print, project.

      Perhaps I will need to add this to my list of places to submit my poetry. For whatever reason, perhaps the beginning of the new year, there are many deadlines fast approaching for poetry competitions. I best get writing.

      Glad you enjoyed my poetry post. And again, thanks for sharing your poetry connection.

  4. I think the Billboard poetry is a great idea. It should be done around here (Faribault).

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree and even suggested to the founder of the Roadside Poetry Project that the poetry banners be circulated throughout the state. The banners on which the Roadside poems were posted are currently in storage. I think it’s a matter of funding at this point regarding anything ongoing with this project. The Lake Region Writers Network has assumed “ownership” of Roadside Poetry, as I understand, so perhaps it will be reinstated.

      Also, shortly after my poetry presentation, I emailed you with my thoughts on several of your posted poems. Did you get those emails?

      I’d encourage you to keep writing poetry and submit. I assume you are aware of SELCO’s Poetic Strokes deadline, February 15.

      • Marshall Butch Armstrong Says:

        I recieved one comment. If there were others, I think I missed them. If you still have the email, could you resend it?

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Marshall, I just resent the email. Please confirm that you received it.

  5. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    Every level and sort of teaching has its challenges. We English teachers (even though I am retired) and our fellow P.E. teachers have a shared challenge, to teach kids how and at the same time to teach them to want to. When I was an educational consultant and presenter, I used to say that if we designed P.E. classes to make kids hate being active and fit that those classes would look much like current P.E. classes. As it happens, most P.E. classes have undergone a major change, not because of me, to address this issue.
    I would also say the same thing about English classes: that they look like classes to make kids dislike reading and writing. Audrey, your passing comment about encountering poetry in English classes is what evoked this comment from me. The way poetry was always taught and is now often if not usually taught makes poetry difficult and inaccessible. In my classroom I used poetry along the lines of what you are showing here. One of the large problems with teaching poetry that way is assigning it and the GRADING it. How do you grade it?
    So thank you an the others here who make poetry more human, real, daily, accessible.
    All that said, I find poetry as a community today rejects the power of structure, of regular full meter, of rhyme scheme. Frost said blank verse is like playing tennis without a net. Note that frost wrote some blank verse, some good, some not so good. (Note: I know Frost the best of all poets, have read almost all of his work.) When he said that the bias was against looser forms of poetry. Today it seems to be the opposite.
    I love a world in which everyone who wants to be is a poet, when poetry is as common in the marketplace as music and drama.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      As always, you cause me to think. How do you grade poetry? That would be tough.

      In all that you wrote, I most appreciate your final line about the commonness of poetry.

  6. Jackie Says:

    I like the idea (and reality) of sidewalk and billboadr poetry, I’ve never seen it before so it was neat seeing in your post. I am not a poet, I have never read a book of poetry…maybe I should! I think it’s interesting although I don’t always “get it”. I like to read your poems (the ones you’ve posted). I think once I wrote a poem, I searched for it and found it in my notes on facebook from way back in 2007, I’m not sure it’s even a poem, it’s just something I was feeling and started to scribble it down and I think it came out ok? I’m not a writer and certainly not a poet but I thought I’d share it with you anyway since you are 🙂
    You might have to copy & past the link below into your browse since I’m not sure if you can just click on it.


    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Jackie, you’ve never read a book of poetry? You must. Get a copy of Carol Allis’ book and I bet you will find that you like her style of poetry. Check out those Motionpoems I reference.

      I would love to read your poem, but since I am not on Facebook, I couldn’t access your FB. You could email the poem to me. Hint, hint.

      So…, once you’ve read a book of poetry, report back to us on your blog, OK?

      • Jackie Says:

        I will have to check into the book you recommended. The motion poems are pretty cool, never knew there was such a tithing, I love to learn something new everyday. Sorry about the facebook thing I knew you weren’t on facebook but for some reason thought you would be able to view my page. Anyway… I sent the “poem” or jibberish or what every you want to call it , to your email. 🙂

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I really do love the Motionpoems. Wonderful concept.

        I’ll check out your poem shortly. Thank you. I thought the link would work also. Technology. Not my strongest skill, for sure.

  7. treadlemusic Says:

    My last encounter with poetry in academia was high school and the teachers I had seemed bent on choosing examples of their favorites, rather than age appropriate classics, and then pursued discussion which needed to follow their line of thoughts in order to achieve any type of “grade” that wouldn’t damage a GPA!! How’s that for motivation!??! I do enjoy “today’s” verse and am definitely a believer in less is more when it comes to words chosen to convey an emotion, image, etc. So love your writings……uber hugs, D

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Uh, huh, I do hope that those who teach poetry today are less stringent, more open to listening to input from students. I can understand why the approach taken during your high school years might cause you to shy away from poetry. But I’m happy you’ve rebounded from that experience to savor the poetry of today.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        I found those restrictions imposed quite a bit regardless of subject. Independent thinking was somewhat frowned upon in those days, today I think the pendulum may have swung a bit too far the other direction. Beautiful poetry is like a beautiful painting…..evokes as many varied responses as there are readers/viewers!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I would agree that thinking was somewhat discouraged in the education of yesteryear. Perhaps that’s why I did well in school. I was good at listening and memorizing. If I were a student today, I’d approach learning from an entirely different perspective. I wouldn’t just accept. I’d challenge and question and ponder.

        And, yes, the reception of poetry should be exactly as you stated, open to whatever interpretation a reader brings to a poem. As always, I value your insightful comments.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        Having gone back to school in 1999 for a career change, I thoroughly enjoyed the change in relationship with the instructors! There were a couple of other “non-trad” students in my class(es) and we definitely set a different ‘tone’ in the room. Nothing was just taken as presented if there was any type of question/comment to be added!! I could be a professional student if I had the opportunity (in a formal setting, that is. We are really “students”-of life- always;-)….hugs……

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I like that “students of life.” I learn so much just from you.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        Oh my! And you…most definitely! I’ve never known a “serious” writer……of anything!!! LOL!

    • Clyde of Mankato Says:

      “The purpose of lecture is to get the information from the notebook of the teacher to the notebook of the students without going through the mind of either.” (not my line)
      The goal for the student in classroom discussion is supposed to to figure out what the teacher wants the student to say and then say it. (This is my line.)

  8. Neil Says:

    I never had much appreciation for poetry until we moved to Oklahoma and I heard an interview of a cowboy poet on the radio. The topic of the poetry is something that I could relate to and readily comprehend. The poetry is also often humorous.

    After moving to North Dakota, Jamie and I were entertained by a relative of ours who writes cowboy poetry. SOme of his poems were quite clever! He occasionally recites it at cowboy gatherings.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Now that’s a type of poetry I’ve never read or heard. What is the definition of “cowboy poetry?”

  9. Emily B Says:

    Hi Audrey,

    What a great conversation you’ve started here! As a high school English teacher, let me assure you and your readers that there are a great many of us who strive to take the intimidation out of poetry. I admire a poem that takes you deeper, that challenges obvious assumptions, juxtaposes strange images for a greater intention — all that. But what I love most is just getting students writing. I rarely “grade” student poems. Instead, I ask them to find published poems that they like, talk about why they like them, and then write something that impresses THEMSELVES. Some of my favorite moments as a teacher are when a teen comes up with a collection of lines that they are both surprised and proud of. The light in their eyes when this happens? Beautiful.

    That said, I’m sad to hear Roadside Poetry has ended. Hopefully it will get picked up again in the future. Amid the talk radio and pop music and advertisements, there is certainly room for a few moments of carefully chosen words as we pass through life.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Emily, thanks for giving us your input from the perspective of an English teacher. As a follower of your blog, I would fully expect you to teach poetry in an introspective way. That defines you and your writing. Your students are blessed to have you as their teacher.

      I, too, hope that Roadside Poetry can be reinstated. Readers, Emily was also one of the featured poets in Roadside Poetry.

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