American Poets are Alive, Well, and Perky

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 13, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            The earliest poems created in English were composed by male warriors in beer halls. Beowulf is a case in point. In Anglo-Saxon England, composing and reciting poems about bravery in battle was a man’s job. Who would have thought that many, many centuries later, poetry would lose its prestige, and to some extent, its “manliness.” Has it recovered?

            When I was in college in the 1950’s, “pseudo-intellectuals” like me would gather in groups and read “Beat” (Beatnik) poetry aloud, and real Beatniks would read or chant their poems in coffee houses to the background moan of a lonely saxophone.

            By the time I began teaching in college in Texas in the late 1960’s, local poetry societies began forming, most of them local branches of the Poetry Society of Texas, which had been established in 1921. Their purpose was good, to promote the writing and reading of poetry, but too often the local branches of PST were made up mostly of elderly ladies writing neo-Romantic Victorian poetry. Many men poets felt a little out of place.

            In those days, poets and poetry lovers also joined the Poetry Society of America, founded in 1910, and the American Academy of Poets, founded in 1934, or the Haiku Society of America, founded in 1968. These groups sponsored poetry-writing contests with monetary rewards for the winners, and also published poetry journals. Such national groups, I believe, contributed greatly toward the preservation of American poetry.

            There were also international groups, like the World Poets Society and the Poetry International Foundation, but, in the end, poets felt they got more out of forming and/or joining local poetry groups not connected to any larger body, State, National, or International. Those are the groups, I’m convinced, that did the most to maintain the survival of the art of poetry writing. It seems to be that the poet as a “loner” is a myth, as creative people who love to write poems want to be with others who have the same proclivities.

            This was especially true on most, if not all, college campuses. From the late 1960’s until 1987, I served as faculty sponsor/advisor to the campus poetry group at Wharton County Junior College. We called ourselves “The Bards of Pegasus,” and we published a poetry magazine entitled TRY (the title is an American English translation of Montaigne’s Essais). About midway between 1966 and 1987, the then current crop of poets changed the society’s name to “Try-Pens,” arguing that “The Bards of Pegasus” was old-fashioned.

            Over the years, the issues of TRY and the individual poems were as good as the students who wrote and edited them, — some years, great poets, some years, not as great, — but it is truly amazing that a junior college in a small community could maintain a sizeable group of “Bards” for 21 years, and, I might add, a rather equal number of men and women.

            Now, in my later, retired years, because I’m not a “loner,” I am a member of the American Academy of Poets, and the Tanka Society of America (I would like to belong to more, but the membership dues make that impossible). I am also an honorary member of the Perky Poets Society of Bellville, Texas.

            I can never remember exactly why the group is called the “Perky Poets Society,” but I think it has to do with their meetings being held at a coffee house, which I think is called “the Perk.” As an honorary member who is a shut-in, I can’t be with them for coffee. The Perky Poets Society works hard to encourage and promote the reading and writing of poetry, — they are currently publishing a CHAPBOOK of poems by local poets, and they have just finished conducting a poetry-writing contest for high school students.

            What is amazing to me is how many local students entered the contest and how good the poems were. Both the CHAPBOOK and the High School Poetry Writing Contest will make a significant impact on the community.

            If the individual poetry societies, like the one in Bellville, all over Texas and all over the United States, sponsor activities like those of the PPS, then I’m confident that poetry is not only surviving but thriving, and we can affirm, “Poetry is alive and well in 21st Century America!

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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