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The Need for a Poetry Revival

Monday 22 May 2017 at 01:27 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 18, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            For many months now, I have been reading biographies about famous 19th Century people, including American poets, Russian poets and playwrights, German poets, and French Impressionists painters. What I am finding in these many biographies is a true history of the 19th Century, a history that reveals how important poetry was to people living then. And not just to the educated upper class, but also to the “common” people in these countries, in that Century. For example, in 19th Century Russia, street urchins and Muzhiks (serfs) knew many of Pushkin’s poems by heart. Books of poetry became best sellers. When some of the poets died, common people came out in droves to honor them.

            So what has happened to humankind’s love of poetry in the 21st Century? What causes even well-educated folks, like my brother and my friends, to abhor poetry, or, in some cases, at least, avoid it? When I was still teaching English almost thirty years ago (in the 20th Century), more than one student would complain, ‘Why do we have to study Wordsworth or Shelley or Keats? That won’t help me get a job or work at a job!’ When I would mutter a response, they would say, ‘You mean you actually LIKE this stuff?!” Well, at least I had my poets’ club, the Bards of Pegasus and our poetry magazine, Try, but by the time I retired from teaching in 1987, interest in joining a poets’ club had declined.

            Having lived away from academia for a long time now, maybe I have a blurred view of this, and there may be more interest in poetry than ever before (but I kind of doubt that, as it hasn’t trickled down to the hinterlands). Many good poets (in Texas alone) are writing and publishing today, but are the folks reading what they write? Perhaps not, because humankind goes through periods of trends or fads, which last for a while, and then fade, like the hula hoop or sock hops or ducktails. Or maybe, like me, folks move on to other things, -- in my case, theology and art, in some cases, motion pictures and electronic social media. After all, one Tweet might be read by more people than a best-selling book of poetry. Who am I to criticize? I don’t read poetry on my ipad, -- I read the news reports. And who am I to know?

            But the love of poetry has never left my heart, and I am reading poems and also about the people who wrote them. In my case, I can’t not do that, because it’s just a part of what is inside of me, and I’m sure God approves, as, after all, He taught David how to write Psalms and Mary to speak the “Magnificat.” Maybe the need today is not to write poetry but to write GOOD poetry, -- I say that based on a few contemporary poems I’ve read. To be sure, there are good poets writing good poems today, Texas poet, Dave Oliphant a case in point.

            Having finished my book consisting of a collection of my columns and a few pen and ink sketches, and waiting for my daughter to help me publish it, I have timorously embarked on another literary endeavor. Ever since I have been a member of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, I have wanted to write a biography of my Wendish maternal great grandfather, Johann Gottlieb Zschech, who came to Serbin, Texas in 1870 from Wawitz, Saxony. Over the years, I have collected bits and pieces of information about him from my mother, aunts, cousins, and publications about Wends. Some of my cousins had never heard the stories my mother told about him, and I had never heard their stories.

            Every year, I would try to begin this biography of Johann, but I could never get beyond an opening paragraph or two of hot coals that always turned to ash. A couple things I read recently ignited a flame that hopefully will keep burning. First, I discovered Pushkin wrote novels and plays in verse, including Boris Godunov, thus giving me the idea of writing a biography in poetry rather than in prose. After reading Boris Godunov, I was even more convinced of such an approach. But BG was published in the 1800’s! Then I came across Dave Oliphant’s KD a Jazz Biography (written in rhyming quatrains and published in 2012), and I thought, ‘Aha, this is even done in the 21st Century! It’s worth a try!’            

            Poetry is a natural medium for writing a biography about a jazz musician or about the history of jazz. What a great idea! But Johann wasn’t a musician even though he knew how to sing the old Lutheran chorales the Wendish way and the German way. The music is in the three languages he knew, in the Texas cotton fields, in the buggy he drove, in the struggles he experienced working the poor soil of Lee County, Texas. It’s a different kind of music, but it’s music. So, I’d better give it a try before I get cold feet.


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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