There are your brooding poets, your poets whose tubercular, star-crossed lives, when made into movies, are full of anguish. And then there is Michael Dimitri.
Here he is at an open mike night at a Salt Lake coffee house called The Greenhouse Effect on a recent Sunday, sitting with other poets and friends in a small room bubbling with bonhomie. When it's his turn to perform a poem, he bounces up and down on his toes; when other people get up to recite their work — sometimes affecting the hip-hop style of slam poetry, sometimes mumbling into their notebooks — Dimitri snaps his fingers to signify that he likes what he hears.
Maybe your dead poets (Romantic poet John Keats, as portrayed recently in the movie "Bright Star," for example) were sometimes cheerless, but Dimitri and his friends are cheerleaders, eager to snap their fingers for every Utahn who wants to share a poem.
And there seems to be more Utah poets than ever. Their ranks include poets who slam and poets who gather at public libraries to quietly read their poems to each other, poets who are published in elite journals and poets who Tweet their poems in 140 characters or less.
Sometimes, says Utah Arts Council literary program director Guy Lebeda, it seems that these days there are more people writing their own poems than reading the works of others. Lebeda says that often when, say, a visiting poet from some university is reading from her work, the audience expects there to be an open mike afterward. Journey among the disparate tribes that make up the nation of Utah poetry and you will stumble upon both platitudes and profundity but above all a desire to say something.
Americans have an ambivalent relationship with poetry. According to a 2006 study conducted for the Poetry Foundation, many of us who buy poetry books as gifts don't read poetry ourselves, as if poetry were a vegetable we know we should like but don't.
Sometimes when local poet Natalie Young peruses used-book stores she finds poetry books that are inscribed from a gift-giver but look like they've hardly been opened.
Despite this reluctance, Young and several fellow poets who originally met at Utah State University have just launched Utah's only poetry-only journal, Sugar House Review. Its inaugural issue includes contributions from "New Yorker" poetry editor Paul Muldoon and the late Ken Brewer, a former Utah poet laureate.
So, while sometimes it may seem that poetry is doomed (it has nearly disappeared from public school curricula, says current Utah poet laureate Katharine Coles), there are also abundant signs of life. There is the hopefulness of Sugar House Review, the exuberance of the nearly 300 people who crowded into an auditorium at Westminster College earlier this fall to hear poet Anne Carson, the cheering crowd recently at Mo's Bar and Grill, where 11 performance poets faced off at Salt Lake City's first cash-prize poetry slam.
"Poetry is about pleasure," Coles reminds us. Last spring, she teamed with the Utah Arts Council to launch "Bite Size Poetry" — one poem a month by a published Utah poet, available in video and audio at NowPlaying Utah.com. Coles makes sure each poem can be read aloud in a minute or less.
Coles is all about reaching out to the hesitant readers of the world and about bringing the world into her poetry. She is inaugural director of the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, started by the Poetry Foundation to expand poetry's reach. She will also travel to Antarctica in 2010 as part of the National Science Foundation's Artists and Writers Program.
There is some cross-pollination between academic poets like Coles, who teaches at the University of Utah, and performance poets like Dimitri, who runs a nonprofit called Salt City Indie Arts. Mostly, though, the two camps live in parallel universes, one more cerebral and contained, the other as much about swagger as words.
Inhabiting the space in between is the Utah State Poetry Society, which used to have the reputation of "blue-haired ladies" writing sentimental verse, says the Arts Council's Lebeda, but has become more sophisticated even as it holds on to its egalitarian roots.
He credits former Poetry Society president N. Colwell (Ned) Snell, "who changed the emphasis from a mutual admiration society" to something more aesthetically challenging, bringing in Pulitzer-winning poets to the group's annual conference. The society has six chapters throughout the state and is drawing new poets all the time, says Snell.
The Society's 2009 Poet of the Year was Gail Schimmelpfennig, whose winning collection of poetry, "The Frozen Kingdom," follows her numbness and complicated thawing following diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.
"Poetry allows you to deal with very intense emotions in a very efficient way," says Schimmelpfennig, whose own poetry includes this economical, honest rumination: This winter chills us to the marrow; frost/has glued the maple leaves to the earth./Like mounding snowdrifts, all that we have lost/amasses, even as we count the worth/of what we've gained.
If you're looking at poetry for easy comfort, says Coles, you'll have to settle for bad poetry. "Good poetry is a more harrowing kind of comfort."
Perhaps some of us were scared away from poetry by teachers who wanted us to "analyze" it, so we come at poems as a sort of inquisition. Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins sums up the experience this way, in "Introduction to Poetry":
"I want them to waterski/across the surface of a poem/waving at the author's name on the shore./But all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means."
As Salt Lake poet Joel Long says, "It's OK to be a little bewildered." Take some time to sit with a poem, he says.
Which brings us, finally, to Richard Cronshey.
One frigid day recently, Cronshey dropped by to see Carol Hanson, who had spent the morning reading and, not to be too blunt about it, dying.
Hanson's heart was getting weaker by the day, so Cronshey, who is a hospice chaplain, visited her periodically to talk about her life and death, to "push past the veneer," as Hanson's daughter Wendy puts it.31 comments on this story
"You're not afraid to get the shovel and go deep," Wendy told Cronshey. Indeed, while most conversations with dying people exist at that surface juncture of nicety and avoidance, Cronshey doesn't mind standing on the shaky footing of truth.
Later, sipping tea at a nearby Starbucks, Cronshey contemplated the connection between his job as a chaplain with Superior Home Care and Hospice, and his other life as a poet. The link, he says, is attention, the ability to be present and "open to not knowing."