Recapturing wonder through the pleasures of poetry

OPINION: In pushing language to its limits until it hums with the promise of flight, poetry can give all of us new eyes for old truths.

Every Friday, as part of his classroom's show-and-tell program, our 6-year-old son and his fellow kindergartners report to school with brown-bagged treasures that round out the weekly lesson.

If the topic of the week is circles, Will and his fellow students open paper lunch sacks to reveal saucers and clocks, jelly jar lids, and costume rings.

For Square Week, Will dipped into his brown bag and, with the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, produced a building block for his pint-sized audience.

Like merry shamans of some alphabet cult, the youngsters took turns one week lifting artichokes, almonds, and acorns from homely paper bags, all in homage to the letter "A."

There's an almost sacramental quality to Will's show and tell, the mundane turned magical by the mere mystery of being shrouded for a moment, then displayed once again in a spark of revelation. Through gesture and story and shared experience, the ordinary shimmers, if only for a moment, with new meaning.

Frankly, the whole thing makes me envious.

Where can a grown-up savor the similar pleasure of life wrapped subtly in a question mark, then unmasked again in a rush of discovery that refreshes his vision?

The sensation I'm trying to describe, that teasing dance of riddle and revelation, is the feeling I get when I read good poetry. It's why I continue to read poems, despite being in a beleaguered minority.

When I mentioned my love of poetry at a recent cocktail party, a fellow guest greeted me as if I were an exotic emissary from some remote tropical tribe.

"There's one other person I've met who reads poems," said my newfound friend, a distinguished writer who travels in academic circles. "I'll have to get you two together."

Poetry, a genre that dates to the very origins of literature and that once made superstars of Longfellow, Sandburg, and Frost, is no longer read widely by Americans.

That's the reason for April's annual observance of National Poetry Month, which is aimed at getting more of us hooked on the charms of verse.

National Poetry Month can easily get lost in the clutter of consciousness-raising exercises calling us to sit up and pay attention.

In a calendar already crowded with everything from Dairy Month to National Bath Safety Month, can National Poetry Month claim much authority?

But there's at least one thing that sets National Poetry Month apart from other awareness rituals. Properly embraced, awareness of poetry advances awareness itself.

In pushing language to its limits until it hums with the promise of flight, poetry can give us new eyes for old truths.

When I read "The Beautiful, Striped Sparrow," by poet Mary Oliver, I find that I'm reading not only about a modest brown bird, but about the divine dwelling within the daily, and the power of nature to heal despair.

To read such a poem is to recognize a sparrow as more than a sparrow, a field as more than a patch of earth.

Ironically, poetry lacks a large audience at the same time that its appeal has been appropriated by commercial culture.

Each morning's e-mail brings spam dispatches slugged with such surreal headings as "On cabinetmakers, by shameface" and "I poodle no expanse," each aimed at intriguing us with words that defy old patterns to startle us awake.

Even so, the wholesale onslaught of words in a mass-market world threatens to leach language of its ancient magic.

But as the poet Edward Hirsch has reminded us, reading true poetry "is an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder."

Which is why we should turn to poetry, in this month and throughout the year, to remind us what words can do.

Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.

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