Sunday, April 18, 2010
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
From “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand
April is National Poetry Month. Since 1996, the Academy of American Poets has designated the fourth month of the year as a time for the nation to celebrate poetry. Schools, libraries, and communities schedule special activities in April celebrating the role of poetry in American life. When I was teaching, I usually read at my university’s celebration where faculty, staff, and students read favorite poems—sometimes their own, sometimes one by another poet. Our celebration was low-key, but there are some glittering gatherings going on this month.
I’d love to attend the one Tuesday at Lincoln Center and hear stars such as Meryl Streep, Matt Dillon, Roseanne Cash, and Gabriel Byrne reading their favorite poems. I’m always interested in learning people’s favorite poems. There’s a wonderful site called “The Favorite Poem Project” which offers videos of Americans in all their wondrous variety reading their favorite poem and sharing their reasons for connecting with the poem. Robert Pinsky founded the project during his tenure as 39th Poet Laureate of the United States. I find it heartening to visit the site and watch a few videos and remember that the fifty on the site are just a sampling of the thousands in the project. Americans from 5 to 97, from every state, from various backgrounds were eager to share the poems they love.
Another great site to pay a celebratory visit to this month is Robert Lee Brewer’s 3rd Annual Poem a Day Challenge at his Poetic Asides Blog. He provides a prompt each day, shares his own response to the prompt, and challenges his readers to write and share theirs. Today (April 18) , the prompt is to “take the phrase ‘To (blank),’ replace the blank with a word or phrase, make the new phrase the title of your poem, and then, write the poem.” Brewer’s own poem for today is entitled “To write a poem in a crowded bookstore.”
Yet another site I visit is the American Academy of Poets Life Lines. The Academy invites readers to share a few lines of poetry that have remained with them, along with a paragraph explaining what the lines have given.
By now, you’ve probably realized that I’m a lover of poetry. It was really my first love—the first lines I learned by heart were from poems (nursery rhymes, psalms, Robert Louis Stevenson). I’ve been blessed to have a few poems published. I even won an Academy of American Poets award when I was in graduate school. These days I write only occasional poetry, although I like to think I bring a poet’s sensibilities to the prose writing I do. And Max’s songs may count as poems. But I am still a reader of poetry. I would find a day without reading a poem bleak indeed. I thought about posting my favorite poem, but how can I choose from such bounty? Instead, I’ll share with you some of my poetic “life lines.”
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you -- Nobody -- Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise -- you know!
--from #288 by Emily Dickinson
I was 10 the year I first read this poem. It was my first experience with feeling that a poem was a conversation between the poet’s mind and mine. I was entering puberty at a bewildering speed, feeling as if eyes were everywhere. I was hungry for solitude and safety. Ah, I thought, she understands! That’s an experience that has been repeated countless times since, many times with other Dickinson poems, but perhaps it’s never been quite so powerful as the first time. These lines have become part of me.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
—from “Funeral Blues” by W. H. Auden
Some of you may recognize these lines from the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, but my love for them goes back further to a time when I was hit with a loss so great that it was nearly unendurable. I clung to these words. I whispered them to myself in the darkness, finding solace in the evidence that someone else had known such loss and had survived to write of it.
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
--from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
These lines belong to a more recent period in my life, a time when I was old enough to question some of my choices, to mourn for dreams that were dead, to wonder what was left. They offer consolation and challenge when I need both.
I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in a college classroom. Back in February, the Academy of American Poets offered several downloadable, printable poetic valentines. This is one of them. I printed it and I keep it on my desk. Every rereading brings a new sense of epiphany.
What are your “life lines”? Don’t tell me you don’t like poetry. My response to that claim is a bit from my introduction to poetry lecture for my students: You don’t like poetry? Tell me truly, are there no lines from childhood readings, from the lyrics of a song, from the words you read that no one made you read that sing in your head and echo in your heart? Think hard. Remember. Then tell me that you don’t like poetry.”