The State of the State in Poetry

As we leave April behind, I find myself reflecting on the Charles Crupi Memorial poetry competition, which I have judged now for many years. It is perhaps the only state-wide poetry competition open to Michigan high school students, and it produces a LOT of poetry. This year we had more than 1200 contestants. My job is to read all the poems and narrow them down to 100 or so for our final judges. As you might imagine, the experience of reading all these poems is daunting, even exhausting, but I always find it strangely uplifting. It’s not just the occasional brilliant poem that makes it worthwhile. It’s the sum total of all that young poetic expression. Of course, not everything we get is actually a poem. Occasionally someone will even submit a photograph, and we get a few prose passages from essays and quite a bit of “if it rhymes it must be poetry.” And every year we get at least one poem called “I’m only writing this poem for extra credit,” a title that could lead to a deliciously ironic award winning poem, were it not always so true. But overall our high school students are deeply sincere, and for me sincerity has the power to elevate even the humblest poem. Lines such as “Please dear Lord have pity / Don’t take my kitty”(1) may not be part of a winning entry, but you can’t deny their touching authenticity.

It’s impossible to read 1200 poems without realizing that they fall into definite genres. Some are traditional to lyric poetry like the “I’m sorry you’re dead” poems or the “Do you love me?” poems (2). These can be either wonderful or awful, but either way they show that these young writers know something of the work that poetry can do in the world. Even teen angst is oddly touching. These are the endless poems about the corruption of the world or the “when-you-said-you-loved-me-you-were-lying” poems. Their cynicism is happily false. Those who are truly jaded by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” no longer see them as a subject for poetry. Our contestants, on the other hand, like Hamlet, still have the grace to be appalled by the world. The other aspect of the competition that gives me faith in the future is the love of language that runs through the entries like gold, emerging here and there in brilliant seams and nuggets. Most of all this reminds me of the gifted high school teachers who stand behind many of these young poets. Michigan owes these teachers a debt of gratitude. They are the ones who are teaching our children the power of poetry to imagine the world anew.

(1) Loosely remembered from an entry some years ago.
(2) I attribute these phrases to Harvard scholar Helen Vendler, from a public lecture long ago.

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