Life without poetry: narrow, grim and dumb It owns April: Eleven other months should do so well.

The Argument


Poetry is a bomb that frags you with metaphor, explodes in your head where it heals rather than harms, delights and provokes as well as horrifies. When they get imbedded, fragments stay inside you forever. Last year a college-text publishing company led off an ad campaign with huge posters that asked, "Without poetry, would you die?" Poets and poetry readers shook their heads - the question was all backwards. In order to take poetry away you'd have to kill them: it's locked within.

Here's the perfect way to attract notice to the United States' first National Poetry Month, April 1996: Make a solemn vow not to use any metaphors all month.

About an hour into April 1, you'd be incapable of uttering any thought more complex than a grunt. You couldn't wake up "starving" unless you really hadn't eaten in a week. You couldn't order an egg sunny-side up. You could wolf down your breakfast but you couldn't say so.

The basic molecule of poetry is metaphor. Metaphor, says my Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, is "a figure of speech in which one thing is compared with another thing." Poet Marianne Moore called metaphors the "real toads" in a poem's "imaginary garden."

Metaphor is Man's Best Friend - though not necessarily warm and fuzzy - in that it helps as much as the front-leg opposing thumb to differentiate humans from other animals. Humans are the ones that stand on their hind legs, use tools, and make metaphors. Metaphors explain lofty concepts (God watches the fall of the sparrow) and basic emotions (you are the salt in my food). They make sweeping judgments ("Moral fiber has disintegrated into Fruit'n'Fibre," says my student Eric) and refine tiny distinctions (He's one can short of a six-pack). A metaphor is the abstract word made particular flesh: Happiness is Charlie Brown's warm puppy, somebody else's warm Porsche.

Perhaps National Poetry Month arose just because Robert Hass, current poet laureate of the United States, the Library of Congress of the United States (homesite of all American poets laureate), the Academy of American Poets, and a large group of publishers decided along with Jonathan Galassi (current Academy president) to claim April in the name of Poetry.

That's what Academy spokesman Tom Bevan told me. But I myself think the April designation was a poetic allusion, a cross reference to the dozens of metaphors poets have applied to April. It "comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers" (Edna St. Vincent Millay); it's when the world is "mudluscious," "puddlewonderful" (e. e. cummings), and when "the flowers ... chill and shiver" (Robert Frost).

Metaphor is the active ingredient of all language. What makes poetry such a small, portable, efficient explosive is that in poetry metaphors tend to be clustered more thickly than they are in nonpoetry. Emily Dickinson applied the bomb metaphor to poetry, claiming she knew she was reading poetry if she felt as if the top of her head had been blown off. Dickinson wrote a manual of instructions for how to let a poem "go off" inside you:

The Way I read a Letter's -

this -

'Tis first-I lock the Door-

And push it with my fingers - next-

For transport it be sure-

And then I go the furthest off

To counteract a knock-

Then draw my little Letter


And slowly pick the lock ...

For "letter," read "poem." When the mail brings me a new poetry book or magazine, I follow Dickinson's instructions. I run to my only private room, the Little Library that doubles as the bathroom, lock myself in, and riffle through the pages. I read a phrase here, a whole chunk there. I skim the titles, read all the really really short ones (analogous to skimming off the cartoons during a first read of the New Yorker) and eventually settle down to one piece that I almost finish in its entirety before a family member starts pounding on the door yelling rude or desperate things.

Despite the dangers of explosion, I read poetry pretty much as if it were highly distilled non-poetry. William Wordsworth had the same revolutionary idea, only he had it back in 1798: "A large portion of every good poem, even of the most elevated character, must necessarily ... in no respect differ from that of good prose ..."

Like prose, poetry is about something. You can pick up valuable information from it. Carolyn Forche's "The Country Between Us," taught me El Salvador's bloody politics. Rising young Baltimore poet Patricia McCarthy gives me a Belfast I wouldn't know otherwise.

A teen-age male of my close acquaintance was turned on to poetry by the steamy stew of sex and used car parts in James Dickey's "Cherrylog Road." A young woman I know says she loves poems by Baltimore's Natasha Saje and Moira Egan because they contain "such interesting things to do with chocolate."

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