The Book of Life

Finding Poetry in the News

Rice professor Joesph Campana's new book of poetry mines history from the pages of Life magazine.

By Olivia Flores Alvarez April 8, 2019

It started with a box of old ​magazines. Joseph Campana’s mom worked at a library when he was younger, and when the staff was discarding stacks of old periodicals, she sent her son, by then a poet and Rice University English professor, 30 or so issues of Life. The box bounced around with Campana as he moved from place to place for more than 10 years.

He eventually opened it and began reading articles about the major events of the day, beautifully written, exquisitely photographed. Some of the events were startling and significant (the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.), whereas others were glamorous and slightly shallow (a movie star on a yacht). Then there were the ads (for cigarettes, mostly).

As he explored the magazines, he wrote poems in response to what he saw. Those poems and others became ​The The Book of Life,​ Campana’s newly released third book.

“I opened [the magazines] up, and I was just captivated by them,” Campana tells us. “The materials I was looking at were just so powerful.”

The August 12, 1966 issue with the University of Texas clock tower shooting was especially moving, he says. “It felt like I was looking back at some initiating event, something that set a precedent. A horrible precedent, but a precedent for what was to come later. It was about the first of those public shootings. Now shootings happen all the time and we don’t react the same way. But this was the first one.”

The issue covering the shooting became​ Count,​ a listing of the events that week. Campana notes the number of drinks movie star Jack Palance mixed on his yacht with one bottle of fine liquor (14), the number of letters to the editor about a previous feature titled “The Unlikeliest Poet,” (5), and then the number of minutes Charles Whitman reigned terror on the people below the tower before he was shot to death (90). He recounts the number of people dead (12), the number wounded (31), the number of rifles (three), the number of pistols (two), and number of canned peaches (one) Whitman had carried to the the clock tower’s observation deck.

The images in these magazines, considered among the best published at the time, inspired most of the poems in The Book of Life, including​ Broken Obelisk, ​about the the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. “There were pictures of his dead body,” Campana says. “I didn’t know they existed, and they’re in that magazine. There was something really shocking about them.”

Campana writes:

I don’t know how they could print it—how could they not—the shot of Martin Luther King broken on the ground. You can see the blood pooling black on the balcony if you peer through the wrought iron cage of the railings. A single white handkerchief could not quite cover his face, his eyes closed as if sleeping, his fingers so slightly, so delicately curled, his leg bent at the knee as if he might still rise up.

As he continued with the project, one of the most difficult aspects was knowing when to stop. “I tell my students, ‘If the poem has 80 good lines but it really only needs 60, you just have to get rid of them. You really do.’ At a certain point, I felt like I had a certain body of poems that made sense as a book and I stopped.”

He may have stopped, but the stories in ​Life ​magazine didn’t. People still give him old copies that fascinate him, like one issue featuring Jane Fonda as Barbarella. He desperately wanted to write a poem about that one, but  ​The Book of Life ​eventually found a publisher and went to print, sans sci-fi Fonda.

Ultimately, Campana tells us he has one hope for the ​The Book of Life: ​“However complicated, however good, bad, and ugly, history is something we have to keep alive. Historians do it in their own way. What I’m trying to do is keep those moments, when something really important was happening, to keep those moments alive in a way that makes sense for today.”

Book signing April 10, 7 p.m. Free. Anderson-Clarke Center at Rice University, 6100 Main. More info at

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