Thursday, April 01, 2004

Celebrate Poetry

Happy April and happy National Poetry Month. I love April, it has a lot going for it. April Fool's Day, my birthday, spring break, the Easter Bunny, spring. The Easter Bunny doesn't leave me a basket of candy anymore and since I'm not in school I don't get spring break. And, okay, I'm not very good at playing practical jokes but I like to laugh with those who do. So that leaves my birthday and spring and we have National Poetry Month too. I have mixed feelings about Poetry Month. On the one hand I think it's great to have an entire month in which to focus on and celebrate poetry. On the other hand, I am bothered that poetry is ghettoized to only one month and pretty much forgotten about the rest of the year. And I am sitting here planning to take part in the ghettoization by spending much time this month talking here about poetry. But perhaps I can use the month as a springboard to continue the poetry conversation throughout the year. How did we reach the point of squishing poetry into one month? I'm sure there are reasons I don't know about, but from my perspective as a reader I can offer some thoughts from my own experience. It seems to me that when we are children we are floating in a language bubble. We are learning new words all the time and the books we read are full of rhyme and rhythm and joy--nursery rhymes and songs and Dr. Seuss. We get Shel Silverstein

Colors My skin is kind of sort of brownish Pinkish yellowish white. My eyes are greyish blueish green, But I'm told they look orange in the night. My hair is reddish blondish brown, But it's silver when it's wet. And all the colors I am inside Have not been invented yet.
Early bird Oh, if you're a bird, be an early bird And catch the worm for your breakfast plate. If you're a bird, be an early early bird-- But if you're a worm, sleep late.
We are encouraged to write poems in school, to play with words and language And we do. And we have fun.
The World The world goes round, we live on its ground, A place for living, and loving and sharing, Try as we might, the bass don't bite, Although I love, pickled herring.
By me, age 12, Friday June 13, 1980. And I have more too, written in a cramped hand with ballpoint pen in a Mickey Mouse memo notebook all titled and signed and dated and sprinkled liberally with bad rhymes and commas. Then high school happens and our love of poetry is broken. We leave playful verse and are given serious, important verse and asked what it means. We move from loving poetry for the way it sounds and feels so good in our mouths to pouring over the lines with a furrowed brow trying to find the hidden clues that will crack open the metaphor and reveal the Truth of the poem to us. Reading poetry becomes a search and destroy mission. I sat in class on poetry days trying to be invisible so the teacher wouldn't call on me. I still loved the sound and feel of words, I loved reading and I clung to my shattered ideas of what poetry was, hoarding a line here and a stanza there that made some sort of sense to me. I know many people finished high school hating poetry. When I was in grad school and taught freshman expository writing I tried to help the 17 and 18 year-olds in my class to get over their fear of poetry. I failed at that just as I often failed to get them to talk with any engagement about the essays we read for class. I think the way we teach literature needs to be reevaluated, but that's a topic for another time. College wasn't much better than high school, at least at first. Since I was an English major and took different literature classes than the usual general ed ones, I can't speak for that experience. I avoided poetry as much as I could. It couldn't be avoided entirely, but I did a pretty good job of it. Then I got to my senior year and had to take a senior seminar class. Of course, all the "good ones" were already filled and I had to take a class that focused the entire semester on poetry. And not only that, it was on one poet whom I had never heard of. I dreaded it. And it turned out to be one of the best classes I ever had and now Adrienne Rich is my favorite poet. I got turned on to poetry, and when I went to grad school I took several poetry classes and wrote my master's thesis on the poetry of Adrienne Rich. I can't point to a specific aha! moment, but I think it had much to do with the fabulous professor and the poet herself. For the first time in a long time I was reading poetry that made sense to me. It was about thoughts and feelings I had experienced and situations I understood. I think it also helped that I spent the whole semester studying one poet, her images and sound became comfortable and easy and familiar. The professor never asked what a poem meant because a poem, just like a novel or a story, doesn't mean just one thing. Instead we talked about the images and the metaphors, where they came from and how they fit together or created tension and what the resulting understanding was. If I hadn't been fortunate enough to have that senior seminar I would probably still not like poetry much. I think most people aren't as lucky and don't get to an aha! poetry moment. And so we have reached the current state of poetry where hardly anyone reads it except the poets themselves and it becomes more and more insular. And thus we have National Poetry Month, a month where poets celebrate one another and the rest of us say, "Oh yeah, poetry. I don't like it," and then go one about our business. I don't read as much poetry as often as I'd like to. It's work to read a poem. Poems are short and I have to pay attention. It is so much easier to read a novel where if I blank out on the chapter I just finished I can generally continue and figure it out. So this month I'd like to share with you some of my favorite poets. I've been making a list and there are more poets on it than there are days in the month. Some I've read a lot of. Some I've read a little of. Some I haven't read in a long time. But I hope by the end of the month we will both be inspired to spend more time with poetry. To start you off, try visiting Graywolf Press for their poem of the week, the Copper Canyon Press and The Borzoi Reader, an online publication of Knopf publishing which will email you a poem every day for the month of April.