An Argument For Poetic Journalism

For centuries, the news in oral and written form was delivered in verse, often fit to be sung. Historic epics, ballads, elegies, rhymed accounts of hurricanes, hangings, misadventures at sea and war: Much of written record is found in one poetic form or another.Three thousand years ago, the 6 o'clock news in ancient Greece came from a poet accompanied by a lyre. Poets were the Tom Brokaws of antiquity.Poet-reporters had the usual beats: battles, funerals, weddings, inaugurations, executions, sporting events, politics, theater and the arts. Our first Western war correspondent was Homer; the first Olympic sportscaster, Pindar.Before the advent of movable type, there were movable poets. The poet both gathered and delivered the news as he moved from town to town. His arrival in the village warranted the killing of a pig as the community huddled to hear the news of neighboring towns and beyond.Even after the rise of print media, poetry had a voice in the news business. In the 18th century meeting houses of colonial America, New Englanders read broadside news-verse such as this account of the Tilton brothers from Ipswich:Down at an eastward harbour call'd Fox Bay. They in a Behouser at an anchor lay. It was upon the fourteenth day of June, Six stout great Indians in the afternoon In two Canoes on board said Schooner came, With painted Faces in churlish frame... 1772Heroically, the Tilton brothers defended themselves, then escaped to tell their tale to the poet-reporter known today as W.G.In the 19th century, America's bards were maturing in newsrooms: Walt Whitman was a penny press newsman and editor at The Daily Brooklyn Eagle ; William Cullen Bryant was editor of the New York Review and the New York Evening Post ; Edgar Allan Poe was the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger ; Mark Twain reported for the Sacramento Bee .Hybrid forms of journalism and poetry survive today in the arts: contemporary docu-rap, political folk songs, news and commentary poems by Allen Ginsberg, Carolyn ForchŽ, Edward Dorn, Ed Sanders, Ernesto Cardenal. In newspapers, copy editors and reporters use poetic devices every day. Journalists and poets both write with a keen eye to condense, reducing blizzards of data to compositions the size of the human hand. Blends of fact and feeling are found in newspapers everywhere, especially in headlines, haiku-like in their getting maximum mileage per syllable. What terse bolts of wit and melody! Remember the Daily News classic headline of a president's response to pleas from a bankrupt New York:"Ford to City: Drop Dead!"And The Sun on the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania: "CAIO SESCU!" Even front-page hard news leads can read line tight little poems, such as this report from Kuwait's Greater Bergan oil fields:Like flames from hell, hundreds of orange fireballs leap from burning oil wells into a desert sky so filled with black poison that day is as dark as night. Greg Myre, Associated Press , March 6, 1991The throw of light on the land lures the reporter's attention as much as the poet's.MEXICO CITY, Dec. 27 - The tall pines for which Mexico's presidential mansion is named filter the midday sunlight and cast gentle shadows. But such tranquillity is deceptive because inside Los Pinos a struggle is raging over the Mexican presidency and, in large part, Mexico itself. Anthony DePalma, The New York Times , Dec. 27, 1995Let's admit it. Poetry and journalism overlap constantly. So, why not bring the poets back into the quotidian fold? Why not invite the verse form onto the commentary pages? Not just during National Poetry Month. Not just with the coming of spring. But on a daily basis. Let poets report as they always have.It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what it found there ... William Carlos Williams

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