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‘An Assembly Line of Rhyme’

by Pam Tomka | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Books of poems form the Peoria Poetry Club’s collection, courtesy of Bradley University's Cullom-Davis Library
Books of poems form the Peoria Poetry Club’s collection, courtesy of Bradley University's Cullom-Davis Library

For 80 years, the Peoria Poetry Club has offered an eager ear and ‘mutual help’ to the area’s wannabe Robert Frosts and Amanda Gormans

Do you remember the first nursery rhyme you committed to memory? Hickory Dickory Dock? Humpty Dumpty? Did Dr. Seuss draw you in? Goodnight Moon? 

Perhaps it was a first introduction to poetry. Perhaps the cadence and the rhyme contributed to a love of listening to words being read aloud. What happened to that love? Did it end in high school when you had to identify iambic pentameter or write a haiku?

There is an organization in central Illinois that will not let its love of poetry die.

The Peoria Poetry Club (PPC) was founded in 1941, during World War II, with the sole purpose of promoting the reading and writing of poetry. The club currently meets monthly — every second Saturday at the Germantown Hills Public Library — but over the years has convened in many places, from the Hotel Pere Marquette to the late Bishop’s Cafeteria to the Peoria Public Schools Administration Building.

The group “is truly a family of poetry-loving people,” said current President Lois Funk.

Though small in number — about 20 at any given time, ranging in age from 40 to 80 — the group’s members are a diverse bunch. They are less likely to be English teachers than bartenders, mathematicians, Caterpillar workers, counselors and coaches. Some are published authors, writing for the likes of Hallmark Cards and Ideal Magazine. Others have won awards for their work — through the Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters poetry contests, for example. Many have self-published. Most are amateurs who just love writing.

Every few years, the group’s members compile an anthology of their poetry. The goal is to share their work for the pure pleasure of enjoying what is fast becoming a lost art.

Regardless of their topics or their writing skills, the motto of the group is “mutual help for writers.”

“A poet finds that he/she spends most of the times wandering in the wilderness, no one interested in reading or listening to their art,” said member George Tanner. “Our meetings offer a format for our work, where fellow poets do pay attention and support your poetic efforts.” Another member, Patrick Johnson, said he belongs because “my soul is enriched by knowing other souls. A soul enriched overflows into better writing.” 

Each month, they share a poem they have written or one that has special meaning for them. They write about personal experiences, beliefs or even worldly activities that stir some personal passion. PPC member John Fendrich began writing poems “as a teenager, when I started falling in love.” Larry Campbell’s interest in poetry grew from “fragments of thoughts written in a personal journal,” which “demanded further development.”

Back when the group formed in the 1940s, members such as Private Ernest W. Bullock wrote about current topics like the war. Early member Lewis M. Woodruff, whose daughter would become Congressman Bob Michel’s wife, wrote about daily life in central Illinois. For many years, the Peoria Journal Transcript published a Poets’ Corner in the Sunday editorial section.   

A 1991 Journal Star story noting the Peoria Poetry Club’s 50th anniversary described the group as “a chronicler of local history, vehicle for social protest and assembly line of rhymes.” The same holds true today.

Sometimes, nature captures someone’s fancy. In Echoes, Funk writes:

Voices echo o’er the prairie:
poets’ thoughts take wing and fly,
trusting prairie winds will scatter
legacies that will not die.

Politics and promise vanquished can stir the pen. Tanner writes in John, Bobby, & John-John:

Jack, the realist, Bobby, a romantic
John-John, anticipated heir to office
but for a rifle, a pistol, a plane goin’ down
Kennedy men, bright & beautiful gone.

Inevitably, passion lights a literary flame. Here’s Larry Campbell with his Love in October

Flirtations in September
did bear fruit in October.
The harvest would come later
and then lay forth the serving
on the table of just one meal.

A fickle seduction
would have sacred consequences.
Her love at that feast
could not be measured or known
by he would later discover
that offerings of love lost
would far outlast an October’s
moment
of abundance.

Sometimes, the author tries to capture a vivid dream. Again, Campbell:

A 3 Musketeers chocolate bar
she offered me was a way
to break the spell of not speaking.
Fifty years of silence gave way to grace
with one wrapped candy bar.

The approach with a little hesitation,
was then freed and with a warm inviting smile
was well received by all of me.
She was twenty-five
and I was almost seventy.

Dreams, are they not strange?
A 3 Musketeers chocolate bar
will never be quite the same ever
again.
But she will always be
twenty-five and smiling,
and I will never be
almost seventy ever again.

For many, poetry can be cathartic, even therapeutic.

Meanwhile, the group hosts speakers, among them over the years former Illinois Poet Laureate and Bradley University professor Kevin Stein. The group used to have poetry writing contests in the local schools. Those efforts have dwindled, though PPC member Jude Dubin continues to work each year with a Morton elementary school to put together a book of student-written poems. 

For the past 80 plus years, Peoria Poetry Club has rhymed its way through both the best and most challenging of times, and plans to continue sharing poems with whomever wants to listen. New members and visitors are always welcome. To learn more about PPC, contact Martha Campbell at [email protected].

Pam Tomka

Pam Tomka

is the retired director of the Washington District Library and a beekeeper whose homemade honey has gone into a Rhodell’s beer.

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