News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

January 13, 2011

B-SIDES: Competition could uncover the next Max Ehrmann, challenge our thinking

TERRE HAUTE — A great poet challenges our thoughts and actions.

Right now, America would do well to re-read the words of Max Ehrmann in “Desiderata.” In that classic poem, Ehrmann wrote, “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit.”

Those lines prompt a reader to wonder whether such civility is even possible, today, and whether volume and inflexibility are, instead, more admired qualities. The poem makes you think.

Ehrmann’s ability to provoke deep thought is the reason his masterpiece remains relevant 84 years after it was written, along with the Terre Hautean’s many other poems. That’s why a statue and plaza honoring him were unveiled on the corner of Seventh and Wabash last August. And that’s why the inaugural Max Ehrmann Poetry Competition is under way.

“This is partly for people to learn about poetry,” said Mary Kramer, the lady who quietly and clearly organized the two-year Ehrmann statue project, which then led to the poetry competition.

The contest “can introduce people to the art of poetry,” she added.

In fact, rookie poets are encouraged to enter. Anyone living in Clay, Parke, Putnam, Sullivan, Vermillion or Vigo counties is eligible for the competition, and it’s free. Participants will be split into four age divisions — folks 18 years and older, high school students, middle-schoolers and elementary school kids. (School districts in all six counties have received entry information, Kramer said.) Entrants can submit up to two original poems, and their topics must fall into one of three categories — poetry inspired by a work of art, poetry inspired by nature, or poetry inspired by city life or an urban environment.

Got any ideas? If so, you’ve got until Feb. 25 to get your poems postmarked and delivered to the proper address. (See the accompanying information box.)

The competition has a first-class structure. The three judges are professional poets with Hoosier ties, including J.L. Kato, a technical editor from Beech Grove whose poetry includes a collection based on his mother’s experiences during the atomic bomb blasts in her native Japan; Arthur Brown, an award-winning poet and English professor at the University of Evansville; and Rachel Contreni Flynn, a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and poetry instructor at Northwestern University. And, the contest features cash prizes, including a $500 grand prize for the 18-and-over group and various others in each age division. (See the details online at wabashvalleyartspaces.com.)

Kramer wanted worthwhile prizes for the competing poets, “because it’s not nothing; it’s a lot of work.”

Poets, she added, “don’t make any money — if so, rarely, so it’s important to make the prizes significant.” Ehrmann didn’t get rich off “Desiderata,” which only became an international favorite in the 1960s, nearly two decades after he died in Terre Haute at age 72.

People who pursue the arts have a friend in Kramer. “I really believe in the arts,” she said. It’s her livelihood, after all. Kramer serves as executive director of Art Spaces Inc., which is sharing the Ehrmann Poetry Competition’s organizational duties with the Swope Art Museum. She’s also an artist, herself, and is currently finishing a series of paintings depicting borders — those invisible, yet legally real lines between states and countries, drawn by man — to be displayed locally in Turman Art Gallery from Feb. 24 to March 16.

As a youngster growing up in Maryland, Kramer memorized the poems of Robert Frost. Her interest in poetry has expanded since then, “and now I don’t know who my favorite poet is … I’ll have to think about that.”

In a thick binder of materials related to the Ehrmann poetry contest, Kramer carries an excerpt from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “A Song for Winnie,” about South African icon Winnie Mandela and the concept of personal responsibility. It reads, in part, “A poem doesn’t do everything for you; you are supposed to go on with your thinking; you are supposed to enrich the other person’s poem with your extensions, your uniquely personal understandings, thus making the poem serve you.”

Ehrmann’s advice to speak the truth quietly and clearly, and to listen, can serve us all right now.

Maybe the next Max Ehrmann will emerge from the poetry competition in his honor, penning words that force us to think twice.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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