April has arrived, that season when in many places the growl of a lawnmower replaces the roar of a snow blower. It’s the first full month of spring, when melted ice and snow perform their usual magic, giving birth to daffodils and grass as green as the hills of Ireland. Sunlight falls soft as down on the uplifted face, and as Lord Tennyson tells us, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”
Meanwhile, the Academy of American Poets is hoping that April will turn our thoughts to poetry. Once again, the academy has launched National Poetry Month, dispatching posters, books, and creative ideas for reading and composing verse to schools across the country. Many libraries will put up displays of the likes of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Mary Oliver, and some bookstores will hold special readings featuring poetry as old as the ancient Greeks and as new as a sonnet written yesterday by a high school sophomore.
Contrary to what we may think, adult Americans—at last count, some 28 million of them—still read poetry. That figure is small compared to the population at large, but it’s also an indicator that poetry, which at its best is a compound of wisdom, revelation, and beauty, still strikes a chord with the public.
So if we wish to join these enthusiasts of verse, what are some ways we can ease our way into their ranks?
Finding a Good Fit
First, we should shop for poems and poets just as we do for shoes that afford comfort and suit our personalities. One woman likes Allbirds Tree Runners in white while her friend prefers Rockport Prowalkers in black. Likewise, they may exhibit different tastes in poetry.
Some people, for example, may enjoy poetry for the same reasons that toddlers are smitten with nursery rhymes. Kids relish the bounce, beat, and rhyme of “Jack and Jill,” “Star Light, Star Bright,” and “Hickory Dickory Dock,” and their adult counterparts want this same rollicking fun. They’ll find the pleasures of that word-dance in poems like Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Some see this dance as a formal affair. They want verse dressed up, for example, as sonnets, blank verse, or villanelles, with such accoutrements as iambic pentameter and rhyme. Robert Frost once compared free verse, which is poetry without meter or rhyme, to “playing tennis with the net down.” If you’re inclined to agree, if you too want your poetry decked out in the black tie and evening wear of a ballroom, you’ll find plenty of writers on that dance card. Granted, most of them belong to an earlier age, but even today you’ll find poets of the formal school, like Dana Gioia and William Baer, who play tennis with the net up. In this four-line piece, “The History of Western Poetry,” Baer gives readers a sampling of his style while taking a shot at free verse:
Meter, of course, is classicist;
Rhyme is Catholic-medieval;
Blank verse is lapsed and Anglicist;
Vers libre is French (and evil).
On the other hand, if you prefer free verse, a library’s worth of poetry from the last 100 years is at hand.
Nature, War, Art, and More
Here’s another tip: Start with poems that match your interests. If you like digging your fingers into the dirt and planting tomatoes or roses, search online for “poems about gardening,” and voilà, there they are. If you prefer sewing, you’ll again find verse to match your pleasure. Cooking, reading, building, and housekeeping all yield up related poetry.
The same holds true for history. Warfare, for example, has roused the attention of poets for three millennia. From “The Iliad” and “The Aeneid” to the poets of World War I, you’ll find some of the best verse in Western civilization.
Likewise, poets have written about paintings, sculpture, architecture, and the theater. One example of many is John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a classic of English literature. Meanwhile, The Society of Classical Poets gives us “Ballerina,” in which Michael Pietrack salutes ballet while also critiquing the modern arts.
And if nature and the outdoors are your passions—hiking, camping, strolling in the park, birdwatching—no other literary genre offers the interest and impact of poetry. It is, in fact, difficult to think of a poet who has never employed nature in imagery, subject, or theme.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty,” for instance, is a stunning celebration of Mother Nature’s glories, as is Emily Dickinson’s quieter “‘Nature’ Is What We See.” Poet Mary Oliver was an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” and William Wordsworth with his pieces like “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is informally known as “the father of nature poetry.”
In addition to nature, two other subjects—love and death—reign as monarchs in the realm of poetry.
The attention paid by poets to love should come as no surprise, for just like the rest of us, these word-spinners have experienced the joys, regrets, and griefs of deep, intense affection.
And here, one could argue, is a profound reason for reading poetry. In our life’s journey, we are always on the lookout for companions of the spirit, for others who understand and share our happiness and sorrow; we are looking for a spouse, a friend, a spiritual adviser. We treasure those who can help explain ourselves to ourselves.
In poetry, we can find such counselors.
The college student who just had his world shattered by rejection may discover a friend in A.E. Housman’s “When I Was One-and-Twenty” with its advice about protecting the heart. The shy high school girl can feel at one with Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” while dreamily gazing at the boy who doesn’t recognize her existence. The elderly man who long ago knew love may find solace in “When You Are Old” by William Yeats:
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And as with love, the poets bear witness to dying and death.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
That stanza from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s heartbreaking elegy “Dirge Without Music” tolls like a funeral church bell in the hearts of the grieving. The poem as a whole, with its signature line “I am not resigned,” may or may not offer comfort, but it definitely gives a voice to ineffable sadness.
On the other hand, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” acts as a vent for the anger we feel with the wasted lives of loved ones or, for that matter, our own. Clare Harner’s “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” Christina Rossetti’s “Remember” and “When I Am Dead, My Dearest,” and many other poems attempt a reconciliation between the living and the dead, an easing of the mind desired by so many who, having lost loved ones, wish they could express their regrets or say just one more time to the departed, “I love you.”
If nothing else, poetry may allow us to better comprehend our tangled emotions.
April and Beyond
National Poetry Month is a noble effort to encourage more Americans to read poetry, and we should applaud this initiative. Yet we should also regard these festivities as a beginning rather than an end. Poetry can become a part of our daily lives, knitted into our work, chores, and leisure.
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful implanted in the human soul.”
In our digital age, music, poetry, and art lie at our fingertips. Let’s open these gifts to keep alive our own sense of beauty.