National Poetry Month: Why poetry needs warning labels

As National Poetry Month concludes, we should remind readers how powerful poems can be, how transforming, and yet, ultimately, how difficult to contain once they’ve left the page to linger in the mind.

In this spring as in recent others, April has meant another observance of National Poetry Month, an awareness-raising exercise that, as the literary lobby puts it, is aimed at “increasing the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture.”

Few would argue with such well-meaning promotion of cultural enlightenment, yet I wonder:

Can poetry, an art form nearly as old as humanity itself, be bad for your health?

The thought has come to mind these past few days as I commute to work with “Many Miles,” a new recording of Mary Oliver’s poetry, in the CD player. Physically, at least, I’m navigating red lights and stop signs, but my mind, entranced by the peculiar potion of rhythm and recitation, is off with Ms. Oliver in the woods and fields of New England, gazing at sunrises and shimmering ponds.

If texting behind the wheel is an enemy of road safety, I ask myself as I return from daydream to deal with the bumper ahead of me, then what about driving under the influence of verse?

This isn’t the first time I’ve grappled with the hypnotic effects of poetry read aloud. When my third-grade teacher placed a recording of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening” on the LP record player, I quickly accepted Frost’s invitation to watch the woods fill up with snow.

I didn’t leave the woods until well after my classmates had shut their English primers and started their math lessons. While everyone else was scratching out long division, I was still entranced by meter and rhyme, still planted within a winter landscape described by Frost as “lovely, dark and deep.”

What I was feeling, as I shook off the shadow of Frost’s poem, was something lovely, dark and deep, too.

Lovely, because I’d been touched by a music made by words, but also dark and deep because I’d been moved by a form of magic that I, as a reader, couldn’t fully control.

Which is why, as I came to realize, the spells of the magician, the witch, and the religious mystic invariably take the form of a poem.

Poetry, a sublime sorcery of song and story, grew from the traditions of the shaman, the high priest, and the sacred psalmist, people using language to pull listeners, like snakes charmed from a basket, into a different reality.

Fully realized, a poem can be potent and palpable, as Emily Dickinson suggested in her famous definition of poetry:

“If I read a book (and) it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

In other words, or so Dickinson seems to say, don’t try this at home, at least not without caution.

Which is why, as another National Poetry Month concludes, we might consider putting warning labels on poetry books.

Tell readers how powerful poems can be, how transforming, and yet, ultimately, how difficult to contain once they’ve left the page to linger in the mind.

In recognizing once again poetry’s promise and peril, we might remember why good poems are so hard to resist.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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