It’s been a terrible year, and we need to heal, and it’s easy to feel exhausted and also wayward, to want to get out and find some place to savor the air. Admit it: The inner school kid in you (especially the one who has been stuck home for more than a year) would rather be out playing: maybe with music, maybe with friends, maybe with mud, maybe with words.
Maybe you just want to find a good bench to sit on, with a book. You long for a little more time to daydream. You try to steal five more minutes outside at lunchtime. You want to close your eyes in the sun. That’s OK: It’s been many months of brutal duties. We all want to feel the life inside our lives. We all long to be set free of what is dutiful.
Perhaps that’s what makes now such a good time for National Poetry Month, and why it’s a good thing to take some time this year — of all years — to savor it. For those of us who love poetry, poetry offers just that — time to play; time to daydream, a bit of word music, time off from what’s rote. Even on busy days, reading just one poem can seem to create a bit more internal space, a way to stretch time, just as the daylight time lengthens in spring.
Hence, in April — a month devoted to poetry. Never mind that the poet TS Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month/ breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” April is a time, where, cruelly or kindly, a lot of organizations that don’t always talk about poetry find a way to stick a poem somewhere, and a few more newspapers review poetry, and many poets read and launch books.
April is also a month when, returning to TS Eliot’s words, we, his readers, can savor the “m”s and “d”s of mud and memory, death and desire. This isn’t about cruelty, it’s about life: Say the poem, and you can’t help but wake your mind and your mouth up a bit.
I know that a lot of people feel that they don’t get poems. Some people act as if they are afraid that they’ll be tested on the meaning of iambic pentameter, or they’ll have to say what the apple or the dagger symbolizes, and then it’s not fun anymore, because there’s some mad and stringent teacherly voice making it seem as if there’s a way get poems wrong.
I know this terrible B-minus feeling: One year when I was writing a book of poems that turned out pretty well, I had to first dismiss the joyless critic on my shoulder. (It’s just too late for the beautiful, he kept saying with a snarky, sad bit of side eye, and I couldn’t write another thing until I mentally banished him to a small jar on the corner of my desk where he could scowl to himself.)
For the record: One of the best things about poetry is that there is no subject too small, and it is never too late for at least something to be beautiful.
I’ll be honest: For those of us who are working poets, and who hope that people will read and celebrate and be nourished by poems all the time, National Poetry Month can also feel a bit silly. I mean: What happens to poems the other 11 months of the year?
In a world threatened by climate change, every day is Earth Day. In a world where African American history is American history, it feels like we can’t possibly relegate its importance to Black History Month. And since poetry is a place where we explore and sharpen the tools by which language gains meaning — music, metaphor, rhythm, rhyme — every day is poetry day. The life of poetry is inseparable from the life of language, and from the language of ordinary speech.
That’s the wonderful thing about poems: Your pleasure will guide you. You can read poems to find out what they mean, you can read them to take pleasure in how they mean. But perhaps as importantly, you can enjoy what a poem lets you excavate inside yourself.
As you read, watch yourself, too. Do you feel yourself breathing differently? Do you remember your own life in more vivid colors? Are you, even momentarily, more aware of your own longing?