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John Lundberg

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Prominent Women Lend Poetry Some Star Power

Posted: 04/10/11 02:06 PM ET

Oprah, with the help of guest editor Maria Shriver, recently unveiled O Magazine's first poetry issue in honor of National Poetry Month. Some critics questioned the wisdom of devoting an entire issue to an art form not known for making money, but Shriver was pleasantly surprised by the response from Oprah's legion of followers.

"Poetry has always been made to seem kind of cultish," she told O, "but the truth is, everybody really loves it! It's much more mainstream than anyone thought."

It's good to hear that the marriage of poetry and O Magazine was a financial success, and the issue, I think, has some successful moments for poetry, like Susan Casey's rich, accessible feature on poet laureate W.S. Merwin. But at times I couldn't help feeling that poetry, the erudite and socially awkward art that I love, had been glammed up for a Hollywood afterparty. Here was Demi Moore snacking on a shrimp cocktail and sharing her thoughts on Tennyson, and over by the ice sculpture, Bono was reciting Seamus Heaney.

But even the Hollywood piece, I think, is probably good for poetry. Moore doesn't claim to be an expert, and she isn't wrong about Tennyson's "Flower on the Crannied Wall" -- it's a deceptively simple poem that resonates. Her admiration will surely encourage people to read it. And I was genuinely interested to read that poetry inspired a 12-year-old Mike Tyson to fight harder, and that General David Petraeus was meditating on Rudyard Kipling on the eve of the Iraq war hearings.

This isn't to say that the "Oprahfication" of poetry can't go too far. It perhaps already did in this poetry/fashion piece that I just don't... well, maybe you could take a look and explain it to me.

Caroline Kennedy is also drawing attention to poetry this month in a much more traditional way: touring to promote the release of her new book, "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems," from Hyperion Books. The collection of personal reflections and poetry includes verse by great 20th-century and contemporary woman poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds (male poets are also included). Olds appeared with Kennedy at her tour stop in New York this past week, and the two read selections from the book and took audience requests. For those taken in by Oprah's poetry push, Kennedy's book strikes me as a great place to start. Better, at least, than Tennyson's collected works. No offense to Ms. Moore intended.