Spreading the Muse  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2005

Spreading the Muse   

By Rachael Jackson
Jackson is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


Newspapers that want to add a little more soul to their pages might look in the heart of Nebraska. There, a small-town man with a knack for words has an easy answer: poetry.

Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the United States and a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, launched a free poetry column at the end of March. So far, 80 papers have signed up for the column, called "American Life in Poetry." Each week Kooser, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his own poetry, selects a short, modern and accessible work for dissemination to the masses.

"I want poems that people might smile at and others that they'll feel moved by and so on," he says. But Kooser, whose wife is editor of the Lincoln Journal Star and whose son works at the News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois, understands newspapers; he keeps the column six to eight inches long. "I've tried to keep this small and short so it doesn't take up too much newshole," he adds.

For editors worried that they're boring readers with too much news about government and war, poetry could be a new way to energize their content.

Papers from the Roanoke Times in Virginia to the Detroit Metro Times, an alternative weekly, are running the stanzas, couplets and verses. According to the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which is sponsoring the column, enrolled papers have a combined circulation that exceeds 8 million. The foundation has not confirmed that all papers are actually printing the column every week.

Deb Holland, features editor at the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota, runs the column in her paper's Sunday Life and Style section as a counterpart to "Poets Corner," a column that features the work of local muses. The local poetry became more popular after September 11, and Holland says she knew readers would appreciate Kooser's work, especially because of the style of poems that he selects. "It's those raw, everyday feelings that somebody has put down in words," she says.

Poetry was a standard part of newspapers until the early 20th century, Kooser says. Readers would clip and memorize poems that moved them. While he's not sure that his column alone could revive that tradition, he says it's a start. "I think maybe this would promise that newspapers might take it a little more seriously," he says.

The Poetry Foundation is spending $50,000 this year to start the program; two graduate assistants were hired to assist Kooser. Stephen Young, program director at the foundation, says the poems Kooser selects can have a viable, important place in newspapers. "They're not puzzles. They're not nuts to crack," he says of the poems. "There's something immediately to be gained."

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