For many of us, poetry is the stuff of 18th-century bards, inscrutable scribblers and ivory tower academes—a world of lofty, abstract literature inaccessible to the masses.
But it also can be used to get girls.
“My love of poetry began in high school,” says Palm Beach resident Miles Coon, founder of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, hosted each January since 2004. “As I went on to college, I found poetry useful, because I was anxious to find the comfort of young women. Frankly, the lines of William Butler Yates worked better for me than my own.”
Over a 50-minute interview with Boca Raton, Coon recited from memory the Yates poem that melted hearts during his youth—an erudite if long-winded pickup line called “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”—along with four other poems, complemented before and after by Coon’s enthusiastic analysis. His interview answers turn inexorably toward iambs and stanzas, and to listen to Coon speak is to capture the pulse of poetry then and now.
So it’s ironic that Coon, who will turn 75 in January, didn’t receive a master’s in poetry until 2002, from New York’s Sarah Lawrence University. After a 30-year career in the manufacturing business ended acrimoniously, he began to write poems “like a madman.” His passion started with online workshops and continued with his college degree. Still thirsty for poetic camaraderie, Coon found that the only game in town was the Robert Frost Poetry Festival in Key West.
“I thought, why should people have to travel all the way to the southernmost point in our country to experience a great poetry festival?” he recalls. “The very first festival I put together was at Lynn University, and it was just a weekend. The poets appearing at that first festival were taking a huge chance.”
The chance paid off, with every workshop selling out and with crowds of 300 packing auditoriums to hear celebrated poets like Billy Collins and Patricia Smith. The festival ended with a budget surplus and has been expanding ever since, finding comfortable residence in the Center for the Arts at Old School Square. The festival now runs six days and features eight workshops, craft talks, evening readings, panel discussions and a raucous night of slam poetry.
Coon’s goal remains to re-brand poetry as a fun and engaging experience, by all and for all. For some, who have been indoctrinated against poetry from their earliest experiences, the challenge is an uphill battle.
“For many of us, our first experience of poetry was in school, when a teacher would ask someone in the class to please read a poem written in the 17th or 18th century,” he says. “The student would find that he didn’t understand what they were reading. And then the teacher would ask the most forbidding question of all: ‘What does that mean?’
“That sort of teaching—where the poem is presented as a riddle or a puzzle—makes people feel either too stupid to get it or not sensitive enough to get it, but in both instances the student comes away saying, ‘This is something I’m going to avoid in the future.’ It’s a shame, because there’s so much in poetry that is fun, that can be very amusing, enlightening and engaging—more like music than like math.
“I wrote an ad once that said, ‘If you hate poetry, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival is for you.’ That’s all I ask of the public. Give it a shot.”
LEND THEM YOUR EARS
What: The Palm Beach Poetry Festival
When: Jan. 21–26
Where: Crest Theatre, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach
Tickets: $8–$12 for public readings, more for workshops
Contact: 561/243-7922, palmbeachpoetryfestival.org