The 3 Poems By Discussion Group at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh developed out a program first sponsored by the Allegheny County Library Association in cooperation with the OSHER Lifelong Learning Group.  3 Poems By, now in its 5th year and going strong, is a unique model for poetry programming in public libraries of all sizes. 

By Don Wentworth, Senior Staff Librarian at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Moderator of the 3 Poems By Discussion Group

3 Poems By...

I’ve always been a poetry guy.

About seven years ago, I was approached by the local federated county system, ACLA (the Allegheny County Library Association), to see if I had any interest in conducting an introductory session on poetry for a local lifelong learning group, OSHER.  I’d actually been thinking about something along these lines, but there were a number of reasons I’d never taken the plunge:

  • In my 30 year career in libraries, I’d never done a program and I was scared witless
  • I hadn’t wanted to commit to a series of programs, not knowing if it was for me

finally, and probably most important of all…

  • Poetry?  Really?

I decided, that doing the program as a one-shot for lifelong learners  through OSHER was a safe enough bet to try.  The worst that could happen is a one-time disaster and I could crawl back under my poetry- loving rock for the remainder of my programless career.

What folks seemed to enjoy in the lifelong learning sessions was digging deep, understanding why this word and not that–all the subtleties of “unpacking” the poem.

The program – Poetry: an Introduction – was a big success.  ACLA asked me back, wanted to know if I had any other ideas.  Through the system’s partnerships with OSHER and OASIS, I developed a number of one-shot sessions: How to Read Poetry, individual sessions on Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, and Haiku appreciation, all of which proved equally successful.  I became a regular member of the “ACLA Faculty,” which is comprised largely of librarians with special interests who go out into the community to share their passion for those interests.

The inspiration for the 3 Poems By Discussion Group at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh came directly from my experiences programming for the county.  I had begun to accumulate quite a bank of program ideas and poems and though that perhaps all this could be developed into an ongoing program at my home library.

But, what to do?

I thought about what made the sessions for OSHER and OASIS a success. Each session, I did a general introduction to the topic, be it a particular poet, theme, or form, then covered as many poems as time would allow.  After a brief  intro, we generally covered 3 or 4 poems over an hour and half– roughly 15 to 20 minutes each.  Just as with a more conventional book group, I prepared some questions to promote discussion and then the group took it from there.

Conventional book groups, be they fiction or non-fiction, generally cover a book per session, whether monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly.  It is one thing with a novel to read one a month, but a whole book of poems seemed to be too much.  Poetry is too dense, too rich, to read an average of 20 to 40 poems in a one month period– the discussion would be too general, and miss the whole point of talking about the rhythm, cadence, style, language, and themes of one particular author.  What folks seemed to enjoy in the lifelong learning sessions was digging deep, understanding why this word and not that– all the subtleties of “unpacking” the poem.

So, why not just do 3 poems a month?  It didn’t seem overwhelming; the poems could be sent out ahead of time via email so there was no drain on either library resources or our customers’ pocketbooks.  This approach allows participants to read the material carefully, multiple times, without an undue strain on another asset currently in short supply: time.  They can sit and actually take the time to work through a particular piece without worrying about digesting 39 more poems of similar depth and resonance.

I ran the idea by the programming gurus and supervisors, received the go-ahead and found a partner in Renée Alberts, who co-moderates the sessions, and the 3 Poems By Discussion Group was born.

Pittsburgh has an amazingly vibrant poetry scene

Fortunately for us, the library already had a process in place for program promotion. The Carnegie Library has dynamic signage throughout the building and a very active programming and events calendar. We get the information out through newsletters, email lists, and media outlets.  In addition, when we started, Renée Alberts, my co-moderator, and myself, got the word out into the greater Pittsburgh poetry community – Pittsburgh has an amazingly vibrant poetry scene – as well as through flyers in coffee shops, art galleries and various other public spaces throughout the city.

The group, which has an active email list of over 80 people, meets monthly to discuss the work of a particular poet.  We’ve read poets such as Adrienne Rich, Robinson Jeffers, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman and many others.

A typical meeting goes like this:

  • A general introduction by the moderator to the poet and her work, about 15 to 20 minutes
  • An in-depth discussion of 3 poems.

We try to pick works representative of a poet’s career; frequently we prepare 4 poems in case we have extra time, but just as often we only cover 2 in an hour and half because we get so involved.  When possible, we supplement our discussion and presentation with audio and video of the poet reading her work.  A typical discussion will have anywhere from 10 to 20 people attend.


Our core group is extremely loyal…they are very welcoming and open to a diverse range of opinions and perspectives.

We are in our fifth year of meetings and the program is an unqualified success.  We appeal to a broad range of people – poetry mavens, lifelong learners, students from surrounding universities, and the just plain curious.  Our core group is extremely loyal and very democratic in approach; rather than a simple closed circle of regular participants, they are very welcoming and open to a diverse range of opinions and perspectives.

In the past we have partnered with the Carnegie Museum for a program called 3 Poems on Photography.  The program was done in conjunction with an exhibit entitled André Kertész: On Reading, which featured the famous photographer’s pictures from all over the world capturing people in the act of reading.  That month we discussed three ekphrastic poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, and Maggie Anderson, all based on famous photographs, while sitting amidst the amazing museum exhibit, after receiving a personalized introduction and tour by the curator.  We are in discussion with the museum about future joint programs, including a discussion of poems to be chosen to coordinate with a forthcoming exhibit of historical Japanese woodblock drawings.

The 3 Poems By Discussion Group itself is a cross-department partnership between the First Floor New & Featured Department and the Reference Services Department.  First Floor is largely responsible for library programming and the Reference Services Department is where the International Poetry Collection, one of the premiere collections of poetry in a public library in the US, is housed; this departmental cooperation was one of the first examples of shared staffing for programming purposes within this large urban public library.

Additional Links:

3 Poems By Discussion Group homepage

3 Poems By Discussion Group archive

Eleventh Stack, a collaborative CLP blog where Don and Renee contribute posts about “all the cool stuff you might not know we have” at the Main Library.

PDF of the 2012 3 Poems By program flyer


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