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)

on poetry

January 10, 2016

Philip Levine“If you’re going somewhere new and undiscovered you have to trust the imagination, you have to truly believe the poem knows better than you and thus follow where it leads.”
Philip Levine
(January 10, 1928 – February 14, 2015)
. . . . .
photo by Frances Levine

Listen!

December 23, 2013

Paul MuldoonHere’s some good news: the New Yorker, long a repository of printed poems, has initiated a podcast series, New Yorker Poetry Podcasts. In each podcast, poetry editor Paul Muldoon will interview a poet, who will read from his/her own work as well as that of another poet.

Listen to Muldoon’s 20-minute conversation with Philip Levine, or download New Yorker Poetry Podcast at iTunes.

and another poetry walk…

December 6, 2012

Corporate Head - Allen and LevineThis one has been around for quite a while and continues to be worth visiting. Poet’s Walk in Los Angeles is a collection of collaborative works in a small park above the Seventh Market Place, and around Citicorp Plaza. Eight artists each paired with a poet to create one or more sculptures. Phase I was dedicated in early 1991, Phase II in 1995.

Perhaps the best-known of the collection is the bronze “Corporate Head” (left) by Terry Allen (artist) and Philip Levine (poet) at 725 South Figueroa Street. See links to sculptures, poems and information about the pieces and project.

new poet laureate…

August 11, 2011

Library of CongressIn the midst of bleak news from all over, it’s encouraging to see that poetry finds its way into the headlines. The Library of Congress announced yesterday that Philip Levine would be the nation’s official Poet Laureate for 2011-2012. The Librarian of Congress selects the Poet Laureate for a one-year term based on poetic merit alone. See Mr. Levine’s impressive profile and a selection of poems on the Poetry Foundation website.