April, lovely April.
Scraggly March with its lion’s entrance and lamb’s departure has at last taken a final bow, and April now steps to the stage. Associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and derived from the Latin “aperire,” meaning “to open,” April waves her magic wand and turns lawns from brown to effervescent green, brings bursting buds to the trees, and surrounds us with flowering azaleas, peonies, and daffodils. The winds blow warmer, the evenings grow longer, neighbors enjoy backyard chats, and pedestrians walk upright rather than hunched over in heavy coats and scarves.
“Oh, to be in England now that April’s there,” wrote Robert Browning in his poem “Home Thoughts, From Abroad,” and that sentiment rings true for most countries in the Northern Hemisphere. Some may dislike the gnawing chill of January or the griddle-hot afternoons of August, but who can complain of temperate April with her sweet perfumes, her dazzling array of blooms and blossoms, and her easy ways?
And here’s another reason to revel in the glories of this fourth chapter in our calendar. April is National Poetry Month.
A Poetry Party
Founded by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month “reminds the public that poets have an integral part to play in our culture and that poetry matters.” It has grown into the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of students, teachers, and lovers of verse participating in a myriad of activities. The Academy sponsors readings, urges schools to have their young people read and write poetry, offers posters for the classroom, and uses the internet in creative ways to bring poetry direct to readers.
Whether we take advantage of the resources offered by the Academy or decide to institute our own programs for delving into poets and their verse is less important than giving ourselves the pleasures, emotions, and erudition that we can encounter in poems.
Salutes to April
We might, for example, search online for “poems about April” and then click on poemhunter.com, which offers scores of such poems. Here we find the first lines from Chaucer’s Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales”: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,” or “When that April with showers sweet/ The drought of March has pierced root deep.” Centuries later, American poet Ogden Nash gave us “Always Marry an April Girl,” a poem with which I was unfamiliar but which entranced me and brought a smile:
Praise the spells and bless the charms,
I found April in my arms.
April golden, April cloudy,
Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy;
April soft in flowered languor,
April cold with sudden anger,
Ever changing, ever true—
I love April, I love you.
Shakespeare salutes April in several of his sonnets, Edna St. Vincent Millay chides April for its indifference to death and which “comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers,” and Robert Service speaks of “Cloud-dappled skies, the laugh of limpid springs,/ Drowned sunbeams and the perfume April blows.”
Of course, we might also honor National Poetry Month by revisiting those works we have long revered. For some, these might be the verses of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Others may prefer sticking closer to home and reading American poets like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, or Mary Oliver.
I am, for example, a fan of rollicking lyrics like those delivered by Robert Service or Rudyard Kipling. Some aesthetes and critics might condemn such affections as lowbrow or pedestrian; if so, I happily plead guilty on both counts. After many readings, I still get a kick out of Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and find wisdom in Kipling’s “If—.” Here’s just one sample of the pleasure these lively rhythms bring me: the first stanza of Kipling’s poem about an ordinary soldier, “Tommy”:
“I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint of beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.’
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away;”
But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O, it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.”
Those lines sing to me.
Why Read Poetry?
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, Americans on average read 12 books per year. That number is deceptive, as many Americans pick up four or fewer books per year. Many of those who do crack open a book go for bestsellers or treasured classics—novels, history, biography, and self-help guides—but according to figures from the National Endowment for the Arts, poetry has also become increasingly popular.
This growing interest in poets and their writing should not surprise us. In our world of bustle and hurry, when so many of us skim the news headlines online and sprint through social media, poems offer a way to touch base quickly with thoughts and emotions. Poems are a hundred-yard dash; the average novel is a marathon in comparison. A well-written sonnet, for example, may express in the condensed power of its 14 lines what might require 300 pages from a novelist. Here, for example, is William Baer’s “Bookstore” from his collection “Formal Salutations.”
The “celebrity” memoir was moving fast,
a Times bestseller. She opened a copy and checked
the index for her names, both first and last.
Neither was there. What did she expect?
That he’d remember Lisbon from years ago,
their weeks in Cascais, their lovers’ pirouette?
That he’d lament the one who’d told him, “No,”
that she’d, somehow, still be his “one regret”?
She put the book back down, and left the store,
then calmly got in her car, heading for uptown,
never reading in chapter twenty-four
about “Marie” in quotes, who’d “turned him down,”
who was his “only, ever, perfect love,”
whom he was “still and always” thinking of.
“Bookstore” tells a complete story: a long-ago love, a man and a woman who after years apart might have reunited and found love and happiness, and the intervention of circumstance and fate that keeps them separated. A novelist—and I am, like so many others, a fan of fiction—would have taken tens of thousands of words to tell the same tale.
The Heart of the Matter
Mostly, of course, we read poetry because of the power, the beauty, and the insights that the poet shares with us. We come to these fires of verse for the same reasons our ancestors did millennia ago when they gathered in caves or great halls, drawn to the warmth of words and stories, roused to listen around the flames of rhythm and rhyme, wanting truths from the bards that might sustain us, that remind us of all the good things: love, laughter, nobility, family, the importance of honor, human dignity, heroes and glory, and the passage of time.
“Poetry,” remarked Thomas Gray, the author of the poetic masterpiece “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” “is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.”