Students study and talk outside the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center. Photo by Mark Brown.

Tommie Traditions: 15 Years of 'Poetry on the Patio'

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky believed, "If a poem is written well, it was written with the poet's voice and for a voice. Reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem is like the difference between staring at sheet music and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument." In this spirit, shortly after the Library of Congress appointed him to his post in 1997, Pinsky launched the Favorite Poems Project.

His venture inspired UST Libraries Director Dan Gjelten, OSF administrative assistant Julie Kimlinger and poet/former circulation supervisor Kirsten Dierking to launch "Poetry on the Patio" in 1999. The event is held over the noon hour annually in April  in celebration of National Poetry Month.

PoetryMonthFestivities always hold court outside on the patio of O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library near the glass pyramid. Foul weather has caused the event to relocate indoors – to the library's Leather Room – only three years: 2005, 2010 and 2011. Gjelten fondly nicknames these rainy occasions, "Poetry in the Parlor."

"I love it that this event treats poetry as a people’s art, not something that is refined or effete or scholarly or separate from people’s real lives. These poems all mean a lot to the people who read them, and for very different, and often very personal reasons," Gjelten enthused.

Kimlinger works hard all year to solicit an interesting mix of administrators, faculty, staff and students to read. Past readers have included couples (English Department professor Heid Erdrich and John Burke), as well as mother and daughter (Lisa Burke, Opus College of Business, and her daughter Abby) and father and daughter (Dr. Steve Laumakis, Philosophy, and Molly, who at 4 is the youngest to have read). Other unique readers have included then-student and library staff member Carita Izzo, who read "Life" by Mother Teresa in Portuguese; Dr. Michael Degnan (Philosophy), who recited all 80 lines of W.B. Yeats' "Easter 1916" from memory; Dr. Bill Banfield (Music), who read from Langston Hughes' play "Soul Gone Home," accompanied by Gjelten on blues guitar; and Professor Emeritus of Music Dr. Merritt Nequette, who read selections from a collection of writings that were meaningful to his wife, Dr. Pauline Lambert, St. Thomas' first woman senior administrator, who passed away from a brain tumor eight months before the reading. Nequette selected "Instructions for Life in the New Millennium," an Anishinaabe prayer, and a short passage called "Doors," which was read at Lambert's memorial service.

Gjelten said the event is "a true potluck, and you never know what you’re going to get.  But it always works out. It’s like a piece of performance art, really." Past readers have recited poems on war, love, God, defiance, fathers, marriage, even dancing giraffes. The only rule is that readers may not read one of their own poems.

The most read poem – recited at four readings, in 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2011 – is "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. In addition to Frost, the most read poets during the event's history are Shel Silverstein, Billy Collins, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson.

Dan Gjelten

Dan Gjelten

Since the goal is to get as many different people involved as possible, Gjelten is the only person who has read at the event every year, something he considers to be a perk of his job. He kicked off the inaugural event in 1999 to a modest crowd of about 15 people with a reading of "A Blessing" by James Wright (1927-1980), a poet who taught at the University of Minnesota and Macalester. It has since doubled in size, though the turnout is largely dependent on the unpredictable late-April weather.

On Poetry in the Patio becoming a tradition at St. Thomas, Gjelten said he is pleasantly surprised: "Who knew so many people liked to read poems? But the big lesson for me is that THEY DO!  It was a wonderful thing that Pinsky did – he believed that Americans both read poetry and had favorite poems, and I think we’ve proved that it is true. I love giving all kinds of people the chance to stand up and read something."

If you'd like to hear what Gjelten, in 2002, called "an experience of regular people reading remarkable poetry," attend this year's Poetry on the Patio, at noon Tuesday, April 23, on the front steps of O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library.

Poetry on the Patio, 2012