Why Wall Poems?

Propelled by the 101 Leiden Walls in the Netherlands, Graham Carew and I started The Wall Poems of Charlotte last year. It’s a mural project bringing poems to our city’s walls and public spaces. We feature only North Carolina writers: a rich catalog including Charles Wright, Randall Jarrell, Carl Sandburg, and the Black Mountain poets alone, not to mention young writers like Sandra Beasley, A. Van Jordan, Morri Creech, and Alan Michael Parker.

The reception has been incredible, from strangers’ hugs to donations of money, paint and equipment to help from friends on ladders. In addition, CPCC student graphic designers have created many of our pieces—they read the poems closely and interpret them visually, things that the students likely wouldn’t otherwise be doing, and their designs demonstrate a deep connection with the work.

 "Salute" by A.R. Ammons, design by Jennifer Garrison (Dandelion Market)
“Salute” by A.R. Ammons, design by Jennifer Garrison (Dandelion Market)

All of this has reinforced my belief in our community and in the power of poetry. Despite what the statistics suggest, people—not just folks who write poems—care about it and want to see more of it. Still, sometimes Graham and I get asked why we’re doing this.

In the Steve Martin movie “L.A. Story,” a freeway billboard starts displaying strange messages that the main character decides are speaking to him. As a result, he changes, and he even finds true love.

There’s some magic going on, sure. But poetry, like all art, can feel like it’s talking right to us. In the right poem at the right moment, we can each find our context, a distillation of our times, a slash at a common Grendel, a zing of truth and beauty in language so original that for a minute or two we stop aging.

“I knew music could make you feel things, but I didn’t know poetry could, too.”
—community college student, age 19

from "Secrets" by Anthony S. Abbott, design by Jacob Mead (Tryon & 6th Streets)
from “Secrets” by Anthony S. Abbott, design by Jacob Mead (Tryon & 6th Streets)

But what if we never get the chance? When we hear that only 14% of American adults read poetry, per a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s easy to judge ourselves: we are too distracted and stupid to care anymore about something as refined as poetry.

The problem is one of access, availability. Where is poetry? It’s been dragged (right behind jazz) into the realm of the rarefied. Relegated to tiny bookstore sections. Taught dryly, inflexibly, with reliance on Hits from the Far Distant Past. Co-opted by a critical view that says to be affected is not enough.

from "The People, Yes" by Carl Sandburg, design by Michael Drake (Trinity Episcopal School)
from “The People, Yes” by Carl Sandburg, design by Michael Drake (Trinity Episcopal School)

Our second painted wall is at Trinity Episcopal School. Already committed to poetry, TES will have students create interior wall poems next year. I guest-taught there and heard a fourth grader, whose class had been reading contemporary poems, share his work, including these lines:

“I’m a candle in a window,
safe and standing guard,
trembling to stay awake.”

Reading good poems got to this boy, and his writing made me swoon.

That child is lucky to have a great teacher in a great school. But we all deserve access to poetry. For me and Graham, the Wall Poems are one way to get poetry to people, to whom it belongs—so that while walking to work or school or court or the museum or nowhere in particular, we have the chance to encounter beautiful words that mean something and that look us in the eye.

from "Memory in the Shape of a Swimming Lesson" by Jon Pineda, design by Nalee Thao (Treloar House)
from “Memory in the Shape of a Swimming Lesson” by Jon Pineda, design by Nalee Thao (Treloar House)

A reporter asked what we hoped people’s responses would be to the Wall Poems. I explained that we have no plan there. “The words of a dead man/ are modified in the guts of the living,” Auden gorgeously wrote of Yeats. Poetry, like all art, is made and released. It’s a letter sent to everyone.

But we have to be sure it arrives.

Amy Bagwell is a poet and artist who teaches English at Central Piedmont Community College. She directs The Wall Poems of Charlotte.

07.18.14 by Amy Bagwell