Let’s face it: Today, the audience of poetry is increasingly dwindling as poetry becomes appealing and understandable only to the poets themselves.
According to the government’s “Survey on National Participation in the Arts,” released last year, Americans’ reading of literature has stayed static, but reading of poetry has sharply declined. In 1992, 18 percent of Americans said they had read or listened to a poem in the last 12 months, but that figure dropped to a mere 7 percent by 2012, the worst decline of any literary genre. In another decade or two, we are looking at virtual oblivion.
How do we turn around this dismal downward trend? How do we revive poetry—a free or low-cost pastime that stimulates your mind, inspires your soul, satisfies your grandest longings, fortifies the pillars of great civilizations and cultures, and communicates your ideas and feelings more effectively than almost anything else? How do we do it?
April is National Poetry Month and seems as good a time as any to think about an answer to this question, lest it be the last of its kind.
The first step is to return poetry to what people recognize as poetry, in other words, rhyme and meter: Take these lines of William Wordsworth’s poetry (his words are worth listening to): “I wandered lonely as a cloud / that floats on high o’er vales and hills / when all at once I saw a crowd / a host of golden daffodils.”
You may not fall in love with these lines or with poetry after reading them, but you know for sure that it is poetry, how it basically works, and what it is saying. What is the deep meaning? The average man might respond, “I don’t know? Beauty?” Correct! That’s how poetry should work. Too much poetry today is overly cryptic and out of touch with ordinary readers.
Myself and many other poets, after dabbling in modern art or modern poetry, are returning to classical forms for this reason. However, it is anything but easy when college courses and the general public have already come to accept that serious poetry today generally shouldn’t rhyme or make sense upon first reading. The question is how to reconnect the indifferent non-poet masses with poetry.
I have no definitive answers, but only fragments and clues. I have a 9-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter and I’ve tried numerous poems on them. Funny and humorous poems, and poems marked “children’s poetry,” sometimes work and sometimes don’t.
The poems they enjoy most, regardless of poem quality or their particular interest in the subject matter, are riddles. From the Riddler in Batman comic books and movies to the riddles of Gollum in “The Hobbit” to the traditional lantern riddles of the Mid-Autumn Festival (the Chinese equivalent of Thanksgiving), riddles are an age-old heritage that is still relevant and engaging today. Riddles make poetry interactive, fun, and relevant to non-poets.
Recently, I saw Christopher Nolan’s movie “Interstellar,” which prominently featured Dylan Thomas’s rhyming poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Here, we have classical poetry being disseminated to and enriching the lives of millions of moviegoers, most of whom are non-poets.
At their roots, other artistic fields, such as filmmaking—and perhaps all fields and endeavors in a general sense—could be looked at as extensions of poetry. If you have a solid grasp and understanding of good poetry, the simplest form of artistic communication, then you can utilize that foundational perspective and harness it within whatever field you are in as Nolan has effectively done.
Lastly, classrooms remain the surest and easiest way to facilitate engagement of non-poets with poetry. To put it more accurately, humanities education itself, including History, Social Studies, and English Language Arts, benefits immensely from the study of poetry. A core skill in these areas is to ascertain meaning and value in a text. Classical poetry provides the perfect grounds for cultivating this skill. It is a forum that balances free-spiritedness, beauty, creativity, and passion with structure, discipline, order, and restraint.
Classical poetry offers not only a break from long, dry history texts and uninteresting novels but also a place for honing interpretative, critical reading and intuitive skills. If you are a teacher, consider using more classical poetry in your classroom.
These are just a few of the ways that poetry can enrich people lives. So, pick up some good poetry and start reading! And, if you can’t make heads or tales of the poem after a moment of reflection, then it’s probably not good to begin with.
Enjoy classical poetry in motion with the following poems written by living poets today and previously published by the Society of Classical Poets (classicalpoets.org).
By Betsy M. Hughes
Beneath us sleeps a secret, patient world
Of fertile earth and plantings—bulbs and seeds
In moistened soil, safely tucked and curled,
Receiving rains sufficient to their needs.
The ground is soundless. Underneath, the mood
Is active waiting, purposeful, and pure—
Anticipation cooled with quietude
Until a sure emergence is secure.
Then urgent stems must make their run to light,
They push through pathways in the loam, upswing—
Up! Up!—toward a place where all is bright,
They burst into the warmth and fire of spring.
New shoots from tubers, bulging buds give scope
To subterranean harbingers of hope!
Betsy Hughes graduated from Vassar College with an A.B. in English and an abiding love for poetry. She earned her M.A. in English from the University of Dayton and taught high school English for 30 years at The Miami Valley School. In retirement she has moderated courses in literature and creative writing for the University of Dayton Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Her sonnets have appeared in The Ohio Poetry Association Anthology “Everything Stops and Listens” and in several literary journals. Hughes is the 2013 winner of the Stevens Manuscript Competition sponsored by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, with her book titled “Breaking Weather” released in the spring of 2014. She won an Honorable Mention in the Society of Classical Poets’ 2014 Poetry Competition. Her primary interests revolve around her (retired) professor husband, two children, and four grandchildren.
By Brian Mc Cabe
Now Spring time is here;
Snow drops of white will appear
Behind them will come
Yellow harbingers of sun,
Daffodils of the New Year.
Brian Mc Cabe is a retired civil servant in Ireland, who is now pursuing an interest in creative writing, and has had a number of poems and short stories published in Ireland. He writes for a number of journals on the subjects of history and archeology, and has recently published “Dear Miss B: A collection of Edwardian postcards.”
The Cherry Blooms in Central Park
By Peter Agnos
In Central Park the cherries now
Are hung with blooms along the slough,
And stand around the reservoir,
Pink and white Spring avatars.
Now of my three-score years and ten
I’ve outlived many better men;
I’m over-the average hill by five….
I wonder why I’m still alive.
To gaze at cherry trees in bloom
One hundred years seems little room—
Maybe one will whisper in my ear
The meaning of the changing year.
Peter Agnos is a poet living in Manhattan in the West 90s with a view of the Hudson River.
The First Day of Spring
By Lorna Davis
The first day of spring started rainy and cold,
But new greens were sprouting, defiant and bold,
And daffodils nodded their bright heads of gold,
To make the day not quite as dreary.
As I, winter-weary, looked out through the glass
And wondered if ever this winter would pass,
A rainbow of songbirds alit on the grass
And watching them, soon I grew cheery.
On closer inspection, I noticed the gray
Was lighter, and brighter indeed was the day,
As the storm clouds were parting and drifting away,
And sunlight began to break through.
And then, as I watched, winter’s grip on the world
Was loosened, as though its cold fingers uncurled,
And outside my window the spring was unfurled
In a glittering light on the dew.
Taking leave of my window, I stepped to the door,
And into the garden I went, seeking more
Of the warmth that all winter I’d been longing for,
And out in the sunlight I stood.
The air was still cool, but it smelled fresh and clean,
And the tips of the branches were all dipped in green.
Wherever I looked, signs of spring could be seen,
And on such days—oh yes—life is good!
Lorna Davis is a poet who is happily retired and living in California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the Society of Classical Poets, write to email@example.com
Evan Mantyk is president of the Society of Classical Poets and a high school English teacher in upstate New York.