From Psalms to Seuss - what poetry can do for you
VALATIE, N.Y. — April is National Poetry Month. This means poem-a-day e-mails, famous poets on postage stamps, and less-famous ones in the schools 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 fortunate, we had an English teacher who loved it 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 seventh-grade poetry nightmare scenario went like this: The teacher reads a poem that describes a rose opening on a summer day, and we think: "Oh, the poem must be about summer, or beauty, or nature, right?"
But the teacher sighs heavily and says, "No. This poem is about war and man's inhumanity to man."
After repetitions of this experience, many people never want to pick up a book of poems again.
We come away feeling the deck is stacked in this "What does the poem mean?" business, and that poems are a code we cannot crack.
This month, we get another chance. We have April in which to reclaim poetry - good, bad, or even silly - as part of our lives.
After all, before teachers got hold of it, poetry was our first language, our history, and 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 celebrity poets in the United States as some other countries do. In Canada, poet Anne Carson is on magazine covers, with inside articles 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 was the first, reciting "The Gift Outright" at John F. Kennedy's ceremony in 1961.
Kennedy's inaugural is an example to remind us that poems belong at certain times and events. Because of the sun's glare that January morning, Frost could not read the poem he had written for that day. So he recited an older poem, "The Gift Outright," 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 come out of an event. At other times, much older poetry helps us make sense of the present. Auden's "September 1, 1939," passed around and read aloud after Sept. 11, 2001, was the perfect poem for our own sad autumn.
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 and we didn't, was that poems can help, and they can heal. And sometimes, they can communicate what no treatise or speech ever will.
• Diane Cameron is a writer and fundraiser.