Averse to verse? Let the power of poetry into your life

April 01, 2005|By Diane Cameron

APRIL IS NATIONAL Poetry Month.

This means poets on postage stamps, poem-a-day e-mails and poets-in-the-schools are working overtime. But if talking about poetry makes you shudder, you're not alone.

For many people, the thought of poetry brings back memories of seventh grade.

If we were lucky, we had an English teacher who loved poetry so much that when he or she read poems aloud we could viscerally experience the power of words meeting air. But there were other teachers who made us memorize Old English or deconstruct poems about marriage and mortality, topics not exactly top-of-mind for 12-year-olds. The bad seventh-grade poetry scenario went like this:

The teacher read a poem that described a rose opening on a summer day, and we thought, "Oh, the poem must be about summer, or beauty, or nature, right?" But the teacher would sigh heavily and say, "No, this poem is speaking about war and man's inhumanity to man."

After repetitions of that experience, many people never wanted to pick up a book of poems again. We'd come away feeling the deck was stacked in this "what does the poem mean" business, and that poems were a code we couldn't crack.

We get another chance this month. We have April in which to reclaim poetry - good, bad or even silly - as part of our lives. After all, before seventh-grade teachers got hold of it, poetry was our first language, our history, even our music. We don't have to let it drift away. It's our right to take poetry back and to remember that poetry is in the Psalms, in nursery rhymes and at the heart of many children's stories. Green Eggs and Ham is a poem, too.

Part of reclaiming poetry, though, is recognizing poets. We don't have poet celebrities in the United States as some other countries do. In Canada, poet Anne Carson is on magazine covers and reporters write about what she wears and where she goes. In Chile, Pablo Neruda was a diplomat. One of our finest poets, Robert Bly, didn't register in American consciousness until, after 40 years and 20 books of poetry, he wrote a self-help book for men.

We have tiny bits of poetry in our civic life. Bill Clinton gave Maya Angelou recognition when he asked her to read at his inauguration. But she was only the second poet ever to read at a presidential swearing in. Robert Frost had been first, reciting "The Gift Outright" at John F. Kennedy's ceremony in 1961.

That's a reminder that there are poems that belong to certain times and events. Mr. Kennedy's inaugural is an example. Because of the sun's glare that January morning, Robert Frost could not read the poem he had written for that day, so he recited his older poem, with its famous lines:

Something we were withholding made us weak.

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright.

Later, that "filler" poem had perfect resonance for our "Ask not what your country can do for you" president.

Sometimes, poems emerge from an event. Other times, older poetry helps us make sense of the present. W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939," which was passed around and read aloud after 9/11, was the perfect poem that sad autumn, and it's true again in this war year.

William Carlos Williams said it in one of his poems:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

Maybe what the seventh-grade teacher knew that we didn't was that poems can help, they can heal and sometimes they can communicate what no treatise or speech ever will.

Diane Cameron is a writer who lives in Valatie, N.Y.

Columnist Clarence Page is on vacation.

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