Need a poem? How one man cranks out verse − on a typewriter − in a Philadelphia park (2024)

PHILADELPHIA ‒ Dogs barked, birds chirped, office workers lunched and chatted on nearly every bench. At one end of the square, a small circle of women, toddlers and infants had an "Old MacDonald" singalong with an acoustic guitar accompaniment, while at the other end a clarinetist softly played jazz standards.

In the middle of the square, the "CLACK CLACK CLACK" of a manual typewriter added to the soundtrack of a city square on a beautiful spring day.

Marshall James Kavanaugh, a self-described "dream poet for hire," worked at a TV tray/makeshift desk, a battered but fully functional portable Smith Corona Skyriter ready to spin whims into words. Influenced by Beat poets who revolutionized the art in the 1950s and '60s, the 37-year-old busking bard sets up shop in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square and other areas in the city and elsewhere so people can, as his sign says, "Pick a topic, get a poem."

'To inspire and be inspired' by poetry

A native of Trenton, New Jersey, Kavanaugh bikes from his West Philadelphia home Thursdays through Sundays (weather permitting), the Smith Corona packed in the suitcase it came with when he bought it at an estate sale years ago. When he travels (New Mexico and California are favorite destinations), he'll bring the typewriter with him and find a local park or public space.

"My mantra is to inspire and be inspired," said Kavanaugh, and taking poetry to public places as he has for the past eight years is his way of showing others they can follow their dreams, like he did in making a living as a poet and writer.

He finds Rittenhouse Square, ringed by some of the city's priciest real estate and with its trees, fountains and fanciful statues, a prime spot, "the heart of the city" where he can see, talk to and write for people from all walks of life.

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One of those people was Michelle Chapman, who approached Kavanaugh and asked for a poem for her son Tristan, who's about to turn 17. A repeat customer, Chapman said Kavanaugh has written poems for her before, and she has always been happy with them, saving the small cards with his staccato, free-form verse.

"It's kind of quirky to have a poet in the park," said Chapman, who's semi-retired and lives in the neighborhood. "It's always delightful to see him, and he's always very creative. His work has a lot of heart, but it's never sappy."

She told Kavanaugh a bit about her son – he loves sports and music, he's kind and smart ‒ and in short order, a poem was produced, read aloud for its patron, and a gratuity dropped in the Smith Corona case.

Judy Emmons works in the area and stopped by because she was inspired by the unusually mild April day. Her poetic prompt: "Sunny."

"What better way to spend a lunch break?" she asked, and it was hard to argue. "It's such a cool idea."

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Poems about grief, love – and toilet tissue?

Kavanaugh usually writes free-form verse or haiku, and he sees the work as something belonging to the receiver, not the writer. Sometimes tourists ask for a poem as a souvenir of their time in the city; students too young to remember a time before computers will stop to marvel at the typewriter, "the original laptop," as he calls it, made for traveling writers and journalists.

"I get a lot of people asking for a poem celebrating something: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries," he said. "I'll see businessmen with flowers asking for a poem for their wives," and he has even had couples who got a poem while they were on a date ask him to write poetry at their wedding.

Other occasions aren't as happy, he said: "Sometimes, it's people going through struggles: heartbreak, depression, grief," and with those poems, especially, he tries to be a vessel for someone else to express their feelings.

And some requests are a little more complicated: Someone remembers a phrase from high school English and asks for a poem in iambic pentameter ("I tell them that'll take some time, and ask for their email address," Kavanaugh chuckled) or just plain vexing, like the person who asked for a poem about Charmin toilet tissue (Kavanaugh shrugged and obliged).

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'People look to poets ... to be the voice of their times'

Poetry speaks to people in ways they often feel on a primal level, like Kavanaugh, who draws on the bardic traditions of his Irish ancestors. They listen to the stories, the rhythm, the consonance and cadence and feel something deep inside.

"People look to poets, consciously or not, to be the voice of their times," Kavanaugh said. "Poets are a little more centered in our hearts and tuned into the nuances of life. Even if it seems unapproachable on the page, everyone loves a poem that's written for them, or about them."

Four students approached and began talking to Kavanaugh. After a short discussion, Dasara Beta, Adrian Zaragoza, Emmalina Huning and Juliet Rand decided on their prompt: "Rekindling." The Smith Corona keys started clacking.

The students at nearby Curtis Institute of Music (a trumpeter, pianist, violinist and vocalist, respectively) said their appreciation for poetry stems from their love of music.

"We use poetry all the time in our art," Rand said. The poem Kavanaugh produced, then read aloud, was met by their cheers, claps and shouts of "Bravo!"

The group left with their poem, headed back to their classes. Kavanaugh was asked if it pains him, even a little, to see his poems carried away, their future uncertain, their essence possibly lost forever.

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Sometimes he takes photos of poems to keep a little piece of them, he said, or he'll take a line he loves and rework it into another piece. But the poet − who also engages in environmental activism and green space advocacy − knows the ethereal nature of poetry is part of its charm.

"I write a poem, I recite it and I let it go," he said. "I hope it goes out in the world, plants a seed and grows."

Reach Phaedra Trethan at, @wordsbyphaedra on X and @by_phaedra on Threads.

Need a poem? How one man cranks out verse − on a typewriter − in a Philadelphia park (2024)


What is a typewriter poem? ›

Typewriter poetry is no different than words on a laptop or written by hand but they take on a genre on their own. In our fast paced world it is often refreshing to read simple black ink on a page speaking of beauty, pain or love.

What is the message theme of the poem? ›

The theme of a poem is the message an author wants to communicate through the piece. The theme differs from the main idea because the main idea describes what the text is mostly about. Supporting details in a text can help lead a reader to the main idea.

How can we tell if a piece of writing is a poem? ›

A poem is a piece of writing that relies on rhyme, rhythm and meter to evoke feeling, or to convey setting and story. There are dozens of different poetic forms, such as verse, haiku, sonnet, and ballad.

What is a short sentence for typewriter? ›

Examples of typewriter

Some people just liked making pictures with typewriters. That way we can keep up with the typewriter. And then, off in the distance, you see a typewriter sitting on a desk. She can't drive a computer mouse now, so she's an old-school writer with an electric typewriter.

How does a typewriter write? ›

A typewriter is a machine that produces letters on paper when the user strikes a key, which, in turn, forces a steel type to hit a ribbon and transfer ink from that ribbon to the paper.

How do you know the rhyme of a poem? ›

When looking for rhyme schemes in poems, start by labeling the first line with the letter A. Then, read the next line. If it rhymes with the first line, label it with an A as well. If the end rhyme changes, label it with a B.

What is the main idea of a poem called? ›

Theme is the main or central idea in a literary work.

How many lines does the poem contain? ›

Unless you mean a specific form of poem there are no constraints. However, a haiku has three lines, a sonnet has fourteen. There are specific poems that require specific length. However, the shortest poems are a single line and epic poems may go on for pages.

What is the moral lesson of the Psalm of Life? ›

A Psalm of Life: This poem is known for its optimism and the theme-right attitude of life. The poet gives out the message that pleasure or sorrow is not the goal of life. The purpose of life is to carry out all duties and responsibilities for the progress and good of all. We should realize life is shorter and quicker.

What is the difference between a poem and a poetry? ›

Poem is a piece of writing that has features of both speech and song, whereas the poetry is the art of creating these poems. Poetry is also used to refer to poems collectively or as a genre of literature.

How long are poems supposed to be? ›

A poem can be one or two lines (Ezra Pound, “In a Station on the Metro”) or the length of a book (Paradise Lost). How long can a poem be? It can be as long as you want; it can be as short as you want. You can make it stanzas and stanzas and stanzas, or two or three simple words.

What is the difference between a poem and a verse? ›

Poems are typically written in verse, whether free or formal. The major difference between poem and verse is that poetry is the process in which verses are the lines or part of the final product, which is known as Poem.

What is the theme of the poem "My Typewriter"? ›

Explanation: The subject of this excerpt from Edward Dyson's 'My Typewriter' is the poet's struggle with creating literature using a typewriter. The poem humorously reveals how the mechanization of writing can lead to a loss of control and result in endless, terse, and unreadable work.

What are the definitions of typewriter? ›

(taɪpraɪtər ) Word forms: plural typewriters. countable noun. A typewriter is a machine that was commonly used in the past and which has keys which are pressed in order to print letters, numbers, or other characters onto paper.

What is typewriter text called? ›

Courier may be the most famous typewriter font, but there are plenty of others out there.

What is it called when you write a poem from a word? ›

An acrostic poem is a poem in which certain letters of each line spells out a word, name, or phrase when read vertically. Most often, it's the first letter of each line that spells out the word, but they can be placed anywhere on the line.


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