I have a confession to make: on Random Acts of Poetry Day, I printed out 20 copies of a chipmunk poem and then actually handed out only one copy. And by “handed out” I mean I covertly dropped it on a coffee shop table as I rushed out the door.
Why, you ask, would I bother printing out copies of a chipmunk poem, including a stock photo of a cute little chipmunk, and then not bother to hand them out?
In the weeks leading up to Random Acts of Poetry Day, I had big visions of chalking Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” on the sidewalks around my city’s downtown square for the mechanics and carpenters and masons to read. That’s the kind of poem people can relate to, I decided, until I realized how few mechanics and carpenters, and in particular, boatmen, shoemakers, and woodcutters, would be hanging out by the bank or the jewelry store on a Wednesday in October.
So I set Walt aside in favor of an even grander plan: I imagined writing individualized poems for the employees of the businesses I frequent around town. “Ode to a Barista, ” “A Bankers Sestina, ” and “Attorney Acrostics” sounded like just the thing until I looked at the calendar and realized it was now October 4. One day until Random Acts of Poetry Day. No time for originals.
What could people really relate to in a poem? I asked myself on the morning of Random Acts of Poetry Day, not sure it was advisable to make my fellow townspeople scratch their heads and wonder about the meaning of a poem … or about me. That’s when I remembered the chipmunk running up and down the brick wall outside the window during a meeting I attended the day before. Maybe it was a squirrel not a chipmunk, I thought. But by that time I was already doing a Google search of “chipmunk poems” and found Robert Gibb’s For the Chipmunk in My Yard.
With the day half over, I copied and pasted the poem into a Word document, then printed and cut out 20 half-sheet copies. Just as I was leaving my office, I took a quick selfie to highlight my efforts on social media. I’ll just slip these under the windshield wipers of the cars parked at the courthouse, I thought, as I walked down the sidewalk toward the town square. By the time I crossed the railroad tracks and marched across Washington Street, too many people were watching my every move.
I think most of the people were just heading back to their cars after paying their property taxes or resolving their legal disputes in the county courthouse. But I felt guilty sneaking among the parked cars with a handful of chipmunk poems. What if a parking cop, out chalking car tires, caught me? How would I explain myself to my family? What would I say to the judge?
“I don’t know what came over me, your honor. I guess it was just a random act of poetry?”
By the time I made it to Flavors Cafe and Deli, I gripped the stack of papers low and to my side, like they might get away from me if I didn’t hold them tight. I ordered a veggie wrap, no cheese, with a side of potato salad. I talked with the baristas and sandwich makers like I was just there for lunch, all the while trying to ignore the chirps and squeaks of the chipmunks wriggling around in my hand.
As I was about to leave, still clutching all 20 pieces of paper, I stopped by a low table filled with newspapers and other flyers. I looked around quickly to see if anyone was watching. The coast was clear. I dropped a chipmunk poem and raced out the door.
When I got back to the office, I put the other 19 chipmunk poems into the car, thinking maybe there would be an opportunity to hand them out later. I did slip one into the front seat of a pickup truck at the farm where I pick up vegetables each week. So I guess that makes two random acts of poetry.
I’ve wondered since that day why I’d felt so awkward about poetry. Am I like the kid who’s smart but doesn’t want anyone to know it? Did I think people would look down on me because I like poetry? Or was it the opposite: was I afraid people would think I was trying to look smart when really I have no idea what the chipmunk poem is about?
It likely has more to do with the way that poetry hints and suggests and offers and wonders. In an age where everyone just tells it like it is, it can seem as if poetry has its head in the clouds. Too much like the child picking dandelions in the outfield when she’s supposed to be catching pop flies.
Truth is, now I’m actually embarrassed about my embarrassment. I wish I’d sung poetry out loud with “open mouths their strong melodious songs, ” as Whitman suggested. I wish I’d let the other 18 chipmunks skirt and scurry around the minds of some unsuspecting townsfolk who probably could have used a little hinting and suggesting and dandelion picking when all around us others are hitting and catching the pop flies.
I suppose if I wanted a truly random act of poetry, I could just write a chipmunk poem on the sidewalk in the middle of November. Maybe the parking cop would let me use his chalk.
Photo by Shawn McCready, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig, co-author of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts.