April is National Poetry Month. This means we’ll see poets on postage stamps, poem-a-day emails, and the poets-in-the-schools will be working overtime. But if talking about poetry makes you shudder you’re not alone.
For many people the thought of poetry brings back memories of seventh grade. If we were lucky we had an English teacher who loved poetry so much that when he or she read poems aloud we could viscerally experience the power of words meeting air.
But there were other teachers who made us memorize Old English or deconstruct poems
The bad 7th grade poetry scenario went like this: The teacher read a poem that described a rose opening on a summer day, and we thought, “Oh, the poem must be about summer, or beauty or nature, right?” But the teacher would sigh heavily and say, “No, this poem is speaking about war and man’s inhumanity to man”.
After repetitions of that experience many people never wanted to pick up a book of poems again. We’d come away feeling the deck was stacked in this “what does the poem mean” business, and that poems were a code we couldn’t crack.
This month we get another chance. We have April in which to reclaim poetry— good, bad or even silly—as part of our lives. After all, before 7th grade teachers got hold of it poetry was our first language, our history, and even our music. We don’t have to let it drift away. It’s our right to take poetry back and to remember that poetry is in the Psalms, in nursery rhymes, and at the heart of many children’s stories. After all, “Green Eggs and Ham” is a poem too.
Part of reclaiming poetry though is recognizing poets. We don’t have poet celebrities in the United States as some other countries do. In Canada poet Ann Carson is on magazine covers and they write about what she wears and where she goes. In Chile Pablo Neruda was a diplomat. One of our finest poets, Robert Bly, didn’t register in American consciousness until, after 40 years and 20 books of poetry, he wrote a self-help book for men.
We have tiny bits of poetry in our civic life. Bill Clinton gave Maya Angelou recognition when he asked her to read at his inauguration. Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John Kennedy’s ceremony in 1961. Because of the sun’s glare that January morning Robert Frost could not read the poem he had written for that day so he recited his older poem, with its famous lines: “Something we were withholding made us weak. Until we found it was ourselves we were withholding from our land of living…such as we were we gave ourselves outright.” Later, the poem had perfect resonance for our, “Ask not what your country…” president.
Sometimes poetry helps us make sense of events. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, which was passed around and read aloud after September 11th, was the perfect poem for that sad autumn, and it’s true again as we live through more war. William Carlos Williams said it in one of his poems:
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems.
Yet men die miserably every day,
of what is found there.”
Maybe that’s what our 7th grade teachers knew: that poems can help, and they can heal, and sometime a poem can say what no treatise or speech ever will.