Celebrations of poetry and its place in our lives will join us in verse and voice today in Erie, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Celebrations will continue tomorrow in Greensboro, North Carolina; Northampton, Massachusetts; Dallas, Texas; New York City; and on and on throughout the month. National Poetry Month was a gift from the Academy of American Poets to the country in 1996. It has given joy, hope, comfort, and inspiration to its citizenry and taught its teachers and our children ever since.
When we sit together and hear a poem, we listen to one person’s discovery of his or her place in the world. And, make no mistake about it: Our reaction to that discovery is our own uncovering of something about ourselves.
You will be seeing and hearing more about National Poetry Month here at Women’s Voices for Change, but for now we recommend to you www.poets.org for a chance to learn about its letter-writing celebration, to see what is going on in the world of poetry every day of April, and to be reminded of what is timeless about poetry in the lives of us all.
Start by visiting some poems online
Poets.org is a site sublime
Poetry Daily is another treat
And Borzoi emails each day
Isn’t that neat?
Okay, that’s enough of that. The one thing we most definitely do not want to do is visit the banquet that is National Poetry Month and end up with a wiener of doggerel on our plates.
On the other hand, we do want to start April by highlighting how easy it is to find your way to poetry these days. Poems can be the gems in the coal mine of day-to-day life. They can lighten the load of worry, provoke thought, or give you a sense of belonging to a world where the mysteries of existence vibrate with a visible aura. Provocative or rueful, transcendent or common-spoken, poems reveal. Just bear in mind that revelations need not be inscrutable.
It’s important to make that point, because the reason most people do not approach poetry—or have not since they were forced to, in one classroom or another—is because they fear they don’t understand it.
If you’ve been a bit verse-phobic, isn’t this the year to open your mind and use National Poetry Month to reacquaint yourself with “the awareness of experience” that is poetry? What is so wonderful is that, in order to do that, you need do nothing more than sit at your computer.
May we suggest Poets.org as a wonderful place to start? The website of the Academy of American Poets, Poets.org invites you in with a home page that offers a plethora of portals to innumerable ways to view and think about poetry.
You can follow one of their suggested routes, or search a poem or poet you remember from the past. You can listen to poets read poetry. Or access a resource called Poetry 101, a guided tour through poetry appreciation. You can even sign up to have them email you a poem from the new spring poetry titles each day during the month April (or to your mobile device every day of the year). It’s a site to bathe in, to get lost in, to find yourself in and to return to day after day.
For those who don’t want a lush and dense experience of poetry, but rather a quick brush with the magical, Poetry Daily is perfect. It’s a straightforward site that spotlights one poem each day, offering a profile of the featured poet and a look at the book from which the poem came. You can access the archives of previously featured poems and poets, and read news about the “Po World” there as well.
And for the retail minded, both Poets.org and Poetry Daily have wonderful shopping opportunities, which could come in handy when looking for gifts, especially for lovers of poems.
The Borzoi Reader Poem-A-Day is a wonderful way to feel like a poetry insider. The offspring of Knopf/Doubleday books, Borzoi’s selection of poems is far-reaching. Unlike the daily poems from Poets.org, Borzoi sends both the old and the new. Last year, a wonderful offering from Keats was followed by David Lehman’s “Poem in the Manner of a Jazz Standard.” There’s a word for how subscribing to Borzoi’s free poem-a-day feature makes you feel: smart.
You may remember when, in 2002, Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals fortune, donated $100 million to Chicago’s Poetry Foundation. At the time, many felt the Foundation would go to the ruin that befalls many lottery winners. To the contrary—the organization has been thoughtful and measured in its use of the windfall, and its website attests to the taste and egalitarianism that is present in much of their work. Particularly wonderful is the way in which they offer categories of poems (“Weddings,” “Sadness,” and “Dogs,” to name just a few). If you are at a loss for something to say to someone about an occasion or an event, or you’re just looking for a new way to consider something you haven’t explored for a while, this is a great place to start.
Of course, we at Women’s Voices for Change like to think we have carved a very special niche in the cathedral of poetry. Our weekly Poetry Friday features poems, interviews, and books by women poets who speak to what we think about. They are women who find new and wonderful ways to bring us into the world, where we can discover something we’ve always known but hadn’t expressed for ourselves.
One day last week, entering the word “Poetry” as a Google search yielded 196,000,000 results. Hardly a day goes by when we aren’t told the internet has robbed civilization of something: innocence privacy, time, community. National Poetry Month is the perfect time to celebrate something very tangible that the web offers everyone: poems of every stripe and stories about the people who write them. Here’s hoping you add prosody to your life this month and discover the wonder to be found there.
In 1996, National Poetry Month became a movement and a moment in our nation. With the Academy of American Poets as its midwife, this pause for prosody has had its celebrants and its curmudgeons from the very beginning, but what it has had most of all is very good intentions.
The point has always been to recognize that poetry can soothe the soul, no matter what the season, and to encourage all of us to turn our awareness to poems through a month of days when they are more accessible.
So, when tax day comes around, we have cause to remember that we are meant to do more with the early spring moments than stick stamps on unwieldy envelopes with bleary eyes and sagging spirits.
If you seek an abundance of poets and facts about this month of celebration, look no further than Poets.org, from which you could have a poem delivered to your emailbox every day. You might also want to take a moment to visit the WGBH website, to read about Garrison Keillor’s Poetry Everywhere project and watch Billy Collins read his bittersweet signature poem, “The Lanyard.”
Dust off that textbook from college. Where’s that anthology Aunt Martha gave you all those years ago? Haven’t you been meaning to go back to Donne or Auden, Mary Oliver or our beloved godmother of American poetry, Emily D.?
What about taking up your pen and trying something with line breaks and images? Poetry is what is already inside of us after all. It is how we discover what we know—through reading what others have decoded for us, and through daring to crack the code of our unconscious on the page ourselves.
Our nation’s Poet Laureate is an extraordinary woman who wasn’t born yesterday. Her name is Kay Ryan and she is reason enough to celebrate a month devoted to poetry, starting with her poem here. No matter what form your personal celebration takes, we invite you to enjoy the eloquence one woman can mine from simple observation, and to take pleasure in what has joined us all since time began–the impulse to know and to say what we know in ways that transmit the mystery of it all.
A blue stain
the deep pile
of the evergreens.
From inside the
forest it seems
like an interior
wholly to do
with trees, a color
passed from one
to another, a
to which they
like soldiers or
Then the sun
comes back and
it’s totally over.
(c2010 Kay Ryan. Reproduced from The Poetry Foundation, where Ryan has allowed 20 poems to be reprinted so we can taste their goodness.)
Let’s be crass at the outset. A half a million dollars. Five hundred thousand bucks, in quarterly installments of $25,000 for five years. That is enough security to stop a sculptor of stanzas in her tracks, but there is no question that it will most likely just help the iconoclastic poet Heather McHugh to keep on keeping on. (Editor’s note: Short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, 63, another iconoclast and icon, has also received a MacArthur and will be profiled in the coming days.) No doubt, for McHugh (seen at right in a photo by David Belisle) that keeping on will involve staying one or two steps ahead of anyone who wants to figure her out.
A news story about the MacArthur grants said she’s “a poet known for her syntactical twists.” The grant press release described her as “a poet whose intricately patterned compositions explore various aspects of the human condition and inspire wonder in the unexpected associations that language can evoke.” Another said she was known for puns.
Try as they might, reductionist descriptions of a woman who entered Harvard at age 16, running from a rural Virginia home life of outhouses and parents on the outs with one another, will only help to obscure the view of her. Because she does not want to be understood.
This poet-now-acknowledged-as-genius has been explaining us to ourselves ever since publishing her first poem in the New Yorker at age 17 (she has said she chose the New Yorker for her first poetry submission because “I knew that it was my escape and I knew I better choose well if I wanted escape”). But she has said of herself, “I don’t want to be known. To me, being known is the loss of liberty.” No wonder that among her trademarks are ambiguity and an ability to use words to mean other than the obvious.
There are so many examples of so many stunning feats of poetic graces and gymnastics among the poems of Heather McHugh. To see some of them, visit Poets.org, where you can read examples of her work. Or better yet, run out and purchase Hinge and Sign, her National Book Award Finalist collection. At Poets.org you can also hear her recite this one heart-stopping piece. It is offered here not so much as what is typical of this MacArthur Genius, but as a window into her humanity, her devotion to her genre, her belief in the muse and her desire to offer solace to all those who want to understand more than what others walk past.
We could not be happier about this moment in time, a moment when a shy and startling woman stepped off the page into the bright lights of an accolade that will allow her to slip back into the world where she does what she does so dazzlingly well. It’s a good day for poetry and for everyone who cares even a little bit about the most honorable people who devote their lives to it.
What He Thought
We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does “flat drink” mean? and the mysterious
“cheap date” (no explanation lessened
this one’s mystery). Among Italian writers we
could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic —
and least poetic — so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn’t
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans
were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori
or the statue there?” Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think — “The truth
is both, it’s both!” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:
The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. “If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world.” Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die
they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.
That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry —
(we’d all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly) — poetry
is what he thought, but did not say.