The Writing’s on the Wall: Found Poetry in Street Art

The following guest post is by Amber Paranick, a librarian in the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room.

I got the idea for this post by quite literally stumbling on it. I was running to catch my bus and tripped and almost fell. I looked down at my feet and much to my admiration was the first line of a poem penned by Lord Byron (handwritten in sidewalk chalk, no less): “She walks in beauty, like the night. . . .”

Not long after, I discovered this image/text on the side of a two-story building in Philadelphia:

Philadelphia mural art

Image Credit: Amber Paranick, 2014.

The above is arguably a “found poem,” and is especially successful in its use of rhyme. These instances led me to think: what other pieces of poetic text scribbled on sidewalks– in the form of legal (or illegal for that matter) graffiti, or painted in the form of a mural– am I missing by not paying attention to my surroundings?

I did a little research (as a reference librarian, it’s in my nature) and found out that the mural I saw was created by former graffiti artist Stephen Powers, aka ESPO (“Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”), with the city of Philadelphia’s permission (in a partnership with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program). It was funded by a $260,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. The Mural Arts Program, a government and nonprofit hybrid, was started as an anti-graffiti initiative in 1984 by Jane Golden and has since commissioned more than 3,000 murals and other works of public art in the city.

The 50+ visual murals that make up Powers’ “Love Letter” project are a series of love notes that highlight the good sides of relationships–

hug me like i hug the block

Image Credit: LindsayT… on Flickr.

and sometimes the bad sides–

I got the butter, I got the bread, I got the milk, I got the blame

Image Credit: LindsayT… on Flickr.

while serving as an open love letter to the city and, specifically, the Overbrook neighborhood in west Philadelphia where Powers spent his childhood. In addition to rhyme, these texts use poetic devices such as rhythm (even formal meter), repetition, and parallelism to great effect.

Some of the murals’ themes are obvious, like the phrase “Picture Me, Picture Us, Picture This,” on the side of a camera shop–

Picture You, Picture Me, Picture This--US

Image Credit: LindsayT… on Flickr.

and “This Love is Real So Dinner is On Me” on the side of a restaurant:

This love is so real dinner is on me

Image Credit: LindsayT… on Flickr.

Others have meanings that aren’t quite so transparent–they play with metaphor, and create multiple or possibly conflicting meanings. For instance, in one mural, the word RIGHT is spelled out in letters made of up paper dollar bills. Does he mean: Right on the money? The price is right? Money makes everything right?

To see these rooftop murals and street level signs in and around the Market Street corridor in West Philadelphia, take a ride on the Philadelphia’s Market-Frankford elevated train and keep your eyes open from 46th Street through 63rd Street. You’ll view an array of these murals both on your way into, and out of, the city.

Next time you’re en route: Look up! Or look down! Poetry may be right there in front of you. You just have to look for it, or, in my case, stumble on it.

Family Poetry

The following is a guest post by Megan Armenti, Specialist, Congressional Research Service. When I first met my husband and From the Catbird Seat blogger–Peter Armenti–I was immediately drawn in by his sincere smile, warm personality, and quintessential shy librarian nature. I soon discovered that he held a deep-seated love for poetry, one that I didn’t fully […]

Walt Whitman’s War Work: Primary Sources in the English Classroom

The following is a guest post by Rebecca Newland, Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress. It is cross posted on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog. One way for teachers to engage students with poetry is to connect poems and poets to historical events. Students gain a deeper appreciation of poets […]

500 Columns and Counting: Celebrating Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry Project

In the first-half of the 20th century, “newspaper poets” such as Edgar A. Guest and Anne Campbell published massively popular syndicated poetry columns that touched the lives of millions of readers. In succeeding decades the written poem, subject to a variety of cultural and technological changes, gradually faded from the pages of mainstream print media […]

The Book of Secrets, and Other Secret Books

The following is a guest post by Mark F. Hall, a research specialist in the Library of Congress’s Digital Reference Section. The Library’s reference staff receives many Ask a Librarian questions from people trying to locate particularly hard-to-find books. However, we’ve gotten a surprising number of questions from people looking for several books that, it […]

Coming Soon: the Opening Moment

In just a couple of days, 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Charles Wright will give his opening reading at the Library of Congress. I was thrilled to see Ron Charles at The Washington Post help spread the word, and even suggest that the Laureate wear a suit! Rumor has it that the acclaimed poet […]

Program Offers Fresh Take on Gatsby’s Greatness

The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature Reference specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division. Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and a lecturer and critic-in-residence at Georgetown University, has been a consummate researcher at the Library of Congress over […]

Remembered Lines

The following is a guest post by Ellen Terrell, a research and reference specialist in the Library’s Science, Technology, and Business Division. Ellen is a regular blogger for the Science, Technology, and Business Division’s Inside Adams blog. Last year my Inside Adams co-blogger Jennifer Harbster wrote a post for From the Catbird Seat about her […]