As predictions go in Washington, the one made by Robert Frost 19 years ago in his poem at President Kennedy's inauguration wasn't so bad. He was half right, which is about 50 percent above average. The last lines of the poem, which Frost didn't recite because of the sun's glare that day, predicted that America was entering
A golden age of poetry and power Of which this noonday's the begining hour.
Our era of power never panned out, thankfully so, but the goldenness of poetry, or at least a bright glimmer of it is surely here.
The shine was visible the other day when President Carter invited about 100 poets to the White House. Like Marianne Moore rooting for her Dodgers from the stands at Ebbets Field, the poets kept their decorum despite the mayhem around them. A few were called on to recite. All of them met Jimmy Carter, a reader of poetry who savors Dylan Thomas, James Agee and Joyce Kilmer.
By itself, poetry day at the White House hardly makes the case that these are booming days of poets and their sacred art. Other signs, though, including the unpoetic dollar sign, do document it. These are among them:
Through the National Endowment for the Arts, the national Poets-in-the-Schools program is in 50 states, with more than 800 elementary and high schools involved. More than 700 poets are teaching their craft. The numbers have risen by 100 percent in only four years.
The Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines in New York currently supports (through grants from $400 to $4,000) about 300 poetry and fiction magazines. CCLM began in 1968, but, according to one of its directors, more and more poets are now asking for grants.
The Watershed foundation, a Washington group, has produced 58 cassettes of poetry in the last three years. Mail-order sales are strong. In addition, the foundation, through the extended program service of National Public Radio, is about to market 26 half-hour programs of poets reading their works; 150 stations are expected to run the series, the first of its kind nationally.
The money going to the poets is only a trickle of what they deserve as the nation's staunchest celebrators and protectors of language. But poets are among the earth's sane and beautiful mostly because they are fiercely indifferent to paydays. Their need is for the profits of what Emerson felt when a person is seized with "joy to the brink of fear."
These seizures have been felt by two of the most joyful poets at the White House reception, Elisavietta Ritchie and Ed Cox. Both live in Washington.Ritchie, whose recent collection of poems, "Tightening the Circle over Eel Country," has been teaching poetry for some time in grade schools and high schools. We can't begin early enough, she believes. Children have the poetic instinct and unless we are there to nurture it, it may be lost forever by the time they leave school.
Ed Cox works at the other end of life, in apartment residences for older people. In the past four years, he has been holding poetry workshops for citizens over 60 in his neighborhood in the District of Columbia. It's a special moment, he reports, when someone in his 70s or 80s discovers that he has the gift of words. Feelings about life, and death, might never have come out unless a poem were there to express them. Cox collected the best poems of his elderly students into an anthology called "Seeds and Leaves."
Some of the poetry coming forth in this golden age, it must be said honestly, sinks at once to the bottom most reaches of minor verse. Allen Ginsberg calls it "apocalyptic drivelhood." But as poets go into the schools, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons -- and some too, in the hospices for the dying -- a force is created that refutes what W. H. Auden, in a rare moment of loose thought, said: "I do not think that writing poems will change anything."
Perhaps that was true as long as poets remained in their garret. But they are out now. They are visiting the White House. They are in politics, like Sen. William Cohen of Maine, a good man and a good poet. They are in the neighborhoods. Or as Stanley Kunitz said of his life in poetry, it's "freer than ever -- but tied to the same old carcass!"