In his poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins writes that he asks readers to hold his work “up to the light/like a color slide.” Instead, too often, “all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with a rope/and torture a confession out of it.”
That’s the trouble with poetry; we’ve been taught that it’s hard, that it has to be deciphered, that it’s nearly sinful to leave a poem sitting on a table unsolved.
I say this because few people realize that April is “National Poetry Month,” as if warm weather, spring flowers, and green trees aren’t enough of a reason to celebrate it.
Like so many other things, once treasured, often revered, and occasionally hated, since it may harken back to memorization and sweaty-palmed recitation in crowded English classrooms, poetry is as misunderstood and under-appreciated now as ever before — perhaps even more so.
Yet, with the emergence of new poetic faces, like National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and “America’s Got Talent” winner, Brandon Leake, perhaps poetry is making a comeback of sorts.
Despite the trends toward standardization and badly-needed workplace skills, more and more school teachers may be dipping their toes into poetic waters again, and they should be, regardless of the old party line that poetry won’t get anyone a good job or prepare them for a craft or trade. That could have also been said centuries ago when barely literate factory workers toiled under terrible working conditions, yet many laborers still revered poets as the voices of the nation, exalting some who spoke out for the rights of those who read poetry in newspapers. Generations of both the working class and socially elite alike learned to read using poetry, its cadences and rhythms incorporated into every primer ever published.
Should we care about poetry in these seemingly hectic and unpredictable times? Of course. Not only does writing poetry give some folks (both writers and readers) a release valve of sorts — Robert Frost, for instance, said that organizing poems helped him put his own life in order — but reading it may give us ways of learning things that prose can’t. There’s even evidence that poetry is helping those with dementia help cope with their confounding and confusing dilemma.
The educational continent continues to drift from subjects that emphasize creative expression, yet this past year’s pandemic has clearly left us with the realization of what closed theaters, silenced symphonies, and shuttered playhouses really mean. Online chats and texts, video meetings and virtual lessons, as helpful as they are, are no substitutes.
Former Poet Laureate of Indiana, Shari Wagner, obviously a bit partial in favor of poetry’s utility, says, “Poetry is an art form that opens the doors to connect the inward to the outward, what is familiar to what is not. Through poetry, we find confirmation that we are not alone and sense from within a more expansive self.”
The author of three collections of poetry, including her latest, “The Farm Wife’s Almanac” (2019, DreamSeeker Books, 116 pages), Wagner adds, “Poetry does much more than entertain. It can bring solace, revelation, puzzlement, delight, wisdom, and courage. I love Maya Angelou’s definition of poetry as something that '…puts starch in your backbone so you can stand, so you can compose your life.'”
Gorman, who was featured at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, may have stirred the pot of interest in the case of poetry this past January. “Her powerful poem, “The Hill We Climb,” has definitely helped boost poetry in the public eye,” Wagner says. “I hope that it has also been a reminder of poetry’s historic, communal functions: to bring rain to a parched land, heal the wounded, unite the divided, call forth a new day. Poetry sometimes gets stereotyped as something that’s written from a space intensely private and insular, apart from the world. Gorman’s poem expands recognition of the relationship between poet and community.”
Years ago, I took a poetry writing class as part of my college major; I wasn’t very good at it and think my decent grade reflected an earnest effort more than the quality or insight of my poems. Yet, like a backyard mechanic, I’ve continued to tinker with a bit of poetry over the years, and I’ve never been very concerned that whatever mess lay under the hood was ever seen; I’ve done it for myself.
Poetry doesn’t have to be work; it is wondrous thing, something we can use to cope with a world that we sometimes surely believe has lost its collective mind. Please, particularly this month, feel free to do as Collins asks: “walk inside [a] poem’s rooms/and feel the walls for a light switch.”