photo by Olivia Nwabali

The other day, we talked about poetry that appears in the rain. This post offers the opposite: poetry that vanishes in the rain.

Daniel Rowland is the Pavement Poet. He travels around England, busking poems — silently — in chalk, in public spaces. A self-described Druid and pagan, he is interested in the “impermanence of thought” and often writes poems on political and social issues. While he occasionally has to deal with the local constabulary and often observes the indifference of the passing public, he also inspires conversation and even finds others joining in.

Of course, Rowland isn’t the first to think of this. The Academy of American Poets encourged chalk poetry in a National Poetry Month post in 2004. Michigan State University Center for Poetry holds an annual Poetry Chalking. The Guerilla Haiku Movement conducts, and encourages others to host, haiku chalkings.

And, of course there is “The Poem of Chalk” by Philip Levine:

The Poem of Chalk
Philip Levine

On the way to lower Broadway
this morning I faced a tall man
speaking to a piece of chalk
held in his right hand. The left
was open, and it kept the beat,
for his speech had a rhythm,
was a chant or dance, perhaps
even a poem in French, for he
was from Senegal and spoke French
so slowly and precisely that I
could understand as though
hurled back fifty years to my
high school classroom. A slender man,
elegant in his manner, neatly dressed
in the remnants of two blue suits,
his tie fixed squarely, his white shirt
spotless though unironed. He knew
the whole history of chalk, not only
of this particular piece, but also
the chalk with which I wrote
my name the day they welcomed
me back to school after the death
of my father. He knew feldspar.
he knew calcium, oyster shells, he
knew what creatures had given
their spines to become the dust time
pressed into these perfect cones,
he knew the sadness of classrooms
in December when the light fails
early and the words on the blackboard
abandon their grammar and sense
and then even their shapes so that
each letter points in every direction
at once and means nothing at all.
At first I thought his short beard
was frosted with chalk; as we stood
face to face, no more than a foot
apart, I saw the hairs were white,
for though youthful in his gestures
he was, like me, an aging man, though
far nobler in appearance with his high
carved cheekbones, his broad shoulders,
and clear dark eyes. He had the bearing
of a king of lower Broadway, someone
out of the mind of Shakespeare or
Garcia Lorca, someone for whom loss
had sweetened into charity. We stood
for that one long minute, the two
of us sharing the final poem of chalk
while the great city raged around
us, and then the poem ended, as all
poems do, and his left hand dropped
to his side abruptly and he handed
me the piece of chalk. I bowed,
knowing how large a gift this was
and wrote my thanks on the air
where it might be heard forever
below the sea shell’s stiffening cry.

Hear Philip Levine read “The Poem of Chalk.”
. . . . .
photo by Olivia Nwabali
“The Poem of Chalk” from The Simple Truth (1994)

temporary poetry walk

January 28, 2015

MSU poetry chalking

In these days of multitudinous journals, readings and instant self-publishing, there are many ways to get your poems in the public eye and ear. Here’s another: poetry chalking. For the fall semester, the Poetry Center at Michigan State University “arranges a poetry chalking on MSU’s campus to meet students and spread the joy of poetry.” They provide the chalk as well as an assortment of poems, though students are invited to write their own.

Poets.org suggests, “Go one step beyond hopscotch squares and write a poem in chalk on your sidewalk!” Teacher Steve Peterson held a “chalk-a-bration” on the sidewalks of his small Iowa town with his 5th-grade students. Poet and teacher Justin Evans chalked poetry in Nevada with his Honors English students.

Caveat 1: Choose your sidewalk carefully; Danny Rowland, in Bath, England, irked local authorities with his political verse chalked on public walkways. Caveat 2: Choose your chalk carefully. Regular sidewalk chalk washes away easily, but other types of chalk may contain oil, which makes them resist removal. More here.

Happy chalking!