Verse by Verse, Bucknell U. Maps a Poetry Path Through Town

Lewisburg, Pa. — Plenty of people—and you may well be one of them—skip right over every poem in The New Yorker and could not be dragged by a team of Budweiser Clydesdales to any event that had “poetry” in its name. So even though Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry regularly fills a former chapel for poetry readings and draws overflow crowds to a campus nightclub for poetry slams, it’s also laid a whole series of poetic ambushes around town, hoping to trap the unsuspecting as they wait in line for a movie or head to the playground with their kids.

Each ambush—there are 10 in all—places a poem near a local landmark to which the poem is relevant. One poem is across from a Civil War monument, another overlooks a barn that was part of the Underground Railroad, and a third—“Solstice,” by Leslie Harrison—stands beside a cemetery:

… I’m sorry for your loss I say
to the moon, all hungerbelly and short flight.

This is the entrance to the museum of darkness.

On the hillside, the curated dead
are on permanent loan to the museum of cold.

Together the 10 poems make up the Stadler Center’s Poetry Path, which had its debut in August and takes less than an hour to tour, assuming you’re the kind of person who would. Each poem is printed on a panel alongside a map of the path and a QR code that permits smartphone users to hear, right then and there, a recording of the poet reading the work aloud.

This is not, of course, the first attempt to ambush the unwary with verse. Poems began showing up among the overhead ads in New York City’s subway cars way back in 1992, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland has displayed poems alongside campus walks for years. No doubt other institutions have tried similar stratagems as well.

It’s hard to imagine that any could have found a better mix of poems, though. The route here begins in front of Bucknell Hall, the 1886 chapel building that now houses the poetry center, with Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” (“Poetry is what you find/in the dirt in the corner,/overhear on the bus, God/in the details, the only way/to get from here to there”). Then the path strikes out for town, passing a cluster of three spectacular churches and Dorianne Laux’s “Dust” (“That’s how it is sometimes—/God comes to your window,/all bright light and black wings,/and you’re just too tired to open it”).

The route takes a hard right at the Post Office and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful “The Story, Around the Corner” (“is not turning the way you thought/it would turn, gently, in a little spiral loop,/the way a child draws the tail of a pig”). Then it’s off under the Campus Theater’s neon nameplate to the park, the playground (where everyone can enjoy the punchline to Bruce Lansky’s “How I Quit Sucking My Thumb”), and the cemetery. The final stop is a busy crossroads marked by John Koethe’s elegant “The Proximate Shore” (“This afternoon at the symposium/Someone tried to resurrect the thesis/That a poem is a deflected sigh”).

“You wouldn’t believe how cheap it was,” says Shara McCallum, the Stadler Center’s director, of the poetry path. Including the panels, posts to mount them on, and payments to the authors for the recordings, the total cost was not much more than $10,000, she says. The biggest expense was her own time, spent in borough meetings and persuading various property owners to sign on. Now that the posts are in place, she plans to replace the poems with a new set every year.

Too often, “people think poetry is for the rare, the few, the chosen,” Ms. McCallum says. But it need not be. The Poetry Path, she says, is a way of making poems “art that’s in our daily experience.”

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