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Verse in a Box
By Leah Mueller
One of the most pervasive myths about poetry is its reputation for being inaccessible to the masses. Verse is considered the province of academic elitists or wild-eyed starving artists and is often ignored by the rest of humanity. This is an amusing dichotomy—elitists often favor abstract poetry that is hard for the layperson to understand, while starving poets tend to be drawn to a more meandering, freeform style. Either way, the average person can find it hard to relate to the poetic form.
The United States is notorious for its vast disparity of wealth. Underfunded, overcrowded public schools do not possess the resources to devote to an extensive study of literature. Fourteen percent of adults in the US are functionally illiterate. This amounts to a staggering figure: 32 million people over the age of 18 can’t read. The average citizen’s reading comprehension exists on a 7th to 8th grade level. Such individuals usually do not have the luxury of time to improve their literacy skills. Many of them work at dead-end, low-paying jobs which leave them exhausted at the end of the day.
Poetry needs to be more accessible. Public art installations are an egalitarian means to expose the masses to work they wouldn’t have the chance to view otherwise. A successful example is the poetry box—a sturdy, weather-resistant receptacle that contains copies of poems from writers who possess diverse literary styles and cultural backgrounds. The boxes are popping up in cities all over the US, from Portland, Oregon to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The premise is simple: if you want to read a poem, you can remove a sheet of paper from the box and take it home with you. When the boxes become empty, they are refilled with different poems. Some of the boxes do not contain additional poetry sheets. Instead, they showcase the individual poems underneath glass or clear plastic so the words can be easily read. Folks pause and read the words, ruminate about their meaning, and then stroll on to other activities.
One of the most enduring poetry boxes exists in front of a nondescript white house in St. Charles, Illinois. This wooden structure, named the Fox Poetry Box, is the brainchild of Tricia Cimera Whitworth. She has filled its interior with verse since 2016. Every week, no matter the weather, Tricia places a different poem in the box. Some are written by famous poets, others by relatively unknown ones. Work comes to the box from across the globe. Each poem is showcased inside a frame, so it is visible to the public. Imagine the delight a passerby must feel as s/he strolls down the street and encounters a box filled with words. How magical!
Since I briefly lived in Kane County, where St. Charles is located, I was astonished to discover that a poetry box was erected there shortly after my departure. St. Charles is a picturesque town in the Fox River Valley, mostly populated by upper-middle-class Republicans. This predominantly white Chicago suburb boasts a median family income of nearly $95,000. Though most of its inhabitants are quite literate, I had the impression that they didn’t spend a lot of time reading poetry. If I’d known, I might not have fled the area so quickly.
Meanwhile, the Fox Poetry Box continues to swell with new poetry. A recent poem, "The Poem is Not Made to Order Like an Omelette" by Ryan Quinn Flanagan, details the rigors of writing. Another recent poem by Dave Urwin memorializes Leonard Cohen, Jack Kerouac, and David Bowie. He asks the poignant question, “Were you just another passing place//on the road to where I am,//stumbling down the fast track to nowhere?”
Tricia has received so many poems that she had to close the box to new work back in 2018. I hope she re-opens the submissions process soon, so I can send a few of my poems for consideration. Still, I can understand the excitement writers must feel about the chance to have their work appear in a public place, and the resulting outpouring of submissions. Kudos to Tricia, the poets, and all the public work displays in the US and across the world! Be sure to like the project’s Facebook page, and check out the Poetry Box if you happen to find yourself in the Fox Valley.
Editors' note: The new Fox Poetry Box logo was designed by our founding editor Christine Sloan Stoddard.
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